This year as the world triumphs the importance of free speech with the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to two journalists, Maria Ressa and Dmitry Muratov, for their “efforts to safeguard freedom of expression,” Vietnam has taken a step backward in its respect for press freedom by arresting and imprisoning independent journalists.
On October 26, the local Court of Can Tho City began to try five members of the Bao Sach (Clean Newspaper) group, a Facebook-based journalism project, for allegedly “abusing the rights to freedom and democracy” that the government deemed “threatening” to state interests and security. Two days later, on October 28, five members of Bao Sach were sentenced to a total of 14 years and six months in prison.
Meanwhile, the Court of Hanoi City is also expected to try prominent journalist Pham Doan Trang for “propagandizing against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam;” the evidence used to prosecute Doan Trang includes her written reports and assessment regarding environmental issues, the human rights situation, and religious freedom in Vietnam.
In some ways, when we congratulate the two journalists who were awarded the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize in 2021, Maria Ressa of the Philippines and Dmitry Muratov of Russia, we also feel saddened to think about the Bao Sach members and Pham Doan Trang. These Vietnamese journalists have been facing never-ending hurdles reporting the truth under the repressive hands of authoritarian leaders.
Vision for a better journalistic environment in Vietnam
Established in 2019, Bao Sach started off as a Facebook-based project which investigated and reported on the alleged corruption and misconduct of Vietnamese government officials and state-owned companies. Corruption and mismanagement are ubiquitous in Vietnam’s governance system. The project quickly attracted a substantial number of followers in its fan page on Facebook, as the role of the social network in Vietnam is similar to its neighbor, the Philippines, where it is essentially viewed as the Internet.
The journalistic group’s name, Clean Newspaper, refers to its commitment to journalism ethics by truth and impartiality rather than becoming another mouthpiece of the Communist government. Bao Sach gained popularity through its fact-based and accurate reporting that helped expose and provide insights into the many social issues to which the Vietnamese public pay attention, most notably the case of Ho Duy Hai, who was given the death penalty in an unfair trial.
However, being a vocal critic in a tightly controlled media environment comes with a cost. Not much different from what Rappler Founder Maria Ressa  faced as a journalist in the Philippines, independent journalists, and human rights activists in Vietnam also live in constant fear of harassment by government-funded online trolls and arbitrary arrests and charges under vague laws, which have no purpose other than to curb freedom of expression.
Late last year, Truong Chau Huu Danh, one of the co-founders of Bao Sach, was arrested by the police, which marked the end of one of the promising independent media projects in Vietnam. Bao Sach’s Facebook page was shortly suspended after Danh’s apprehension; three members were arrested earlier in April this year.
Subsequently, they were charged with “abusing the rights to freedom and democracy to infringe on state interests” under Article 331 of Vietnam’s 2015 Penal Code, which has been strongly criticized  by the international community and legal authorities for its vagueness and lack of clear definitions of the actual conduct.
Similarly, Doan Trang’s vision  of a journalism project to provide Vietnamese people with an understanding of law, politics, and human rights also led to her arrest and detention. She was charged with “propagandizing against the State,” another criminal charge commonly used by the Vietnamese government to suppress dissenting opinions in the country.
The Vietnamese government’s intolerance to press freedom
Nevertheless, the Bao Sach members and Doan Trang are among dozens of independent reporters, journalists, and broadcasters constantly harassed or detained by the Communist authorities. Critical reporting of online bloggers and live-streamers also meets with increasing censorship as Facebook, Vietnam’s most popular social media site has in recent years reportedly complied with the government to remove “anti-state” posts. According to local activists and free-speech advocates,  the tech giant’s compliance is giving the Vietnamese authorities “near-total control over the platform.”
Despite the Vietnamese Communist Party trying to boast and propagandize  about its state of press freedom and its respect for human rights, Vietnam scores poorly on almost every international ranking regarding press freedom and fundamental civil rights.
Vietnam ranks  at 175th out of 180 countries on the 2021 World Press Freedom Index from Reporters Without Borders in terms of free press. It is also among those countries with the highest number of detained journalists, according to figures  compiled by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) in 2020.
On civil rights, Freedom House, a non-partisan organization working to promote freedom and democracy, declared that Vietnam was “not free” when it comes to internet freedom. The Vietnamese government later criticized the results, allegedly requesting Freedom House to “stop making groundless assessments”  on the situation of internet freedom in the country. However, the government failed to provide concrete evidence to explain its alleged repression of internet users’ rights, other than a few fragmented pieces of information bragging about the country’s growth in internet users and its Human Development Index.
The journey to a truly free, progressive, and independent media environment in Vietnam is still long and arduous, given the arbitrary arrests of independent journalists in recent years and an increasingly restricted social media space. However, if Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh wants to realize his pledge  to “listen to dissenting opinions [and] debates,” then Vietnam must respect freedom of the press and allow journalists to express their viewpoints freely. It would also contribute to the long-term development of both Vietnam as a country and its journalistic environment.
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