RSF and PEN America: Vietnam is Among the Leading Jailers of Journalists and Writers

RSF and PEN America: Vietnam is Among the Leading Jailers of Journalists and Writers

Notable events:

  • Reporters Without Borders: Vietnam ‘Stagnated’ in Press Freedom Ranking
  • PEN America Lists Vietnam as the Third Largest Jailer of Writers
  • USCIRF Urges Designation of Vietnam as ‘Country of Particular Concern’ Due to Systematic Violations of Religious Freedom 
  • Parliament Approves Chairman Vuong Dinh Hue’s Dismissal

Reporters Without Borders: Vietnam ‘Stagnated’ in Press Freedom Ranking

Political authorities worldwide have failed to fulfill their role as guarantors of a safe environment for journalism and the public’s right to reliable, independent, and diverse news and information, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) wrote in its annual 2024 World Press Freedom Index. RSF, the Paris-based advocacy group, released the report, which ranks 180 countries worldwide regarding the freedom of its press environment, on May 3, the World Press Freedom Day.

Vietnam ranked 174th in RSF’s annual index, up from 178th the previous year. According to the measurement, the higher the ranking, the more liberal a country’s media environment is. Despite its higher position this year, Vietnam's average score plummeted from 24.58 in 2023 to 22.31. RSF measures a country’s press freedom score through five indicators: political, economic, legislative, social, and security.

In the Asia-Pacific region, Vietnam’s press freedom only ranks above North Korea (177th) and Afghanistan (178th), while junta-ruled Myanmar and China positioned at 171st and 172nd, surpassing Hanoi’s score. These nations have perpetually stagnated at the bottom of the index.

According to RSF, the Vietnamese Communist Party closely monitors its traditional media, while independent reporters and bloggers are often jailed for practicing their freedom of expression. The one-party state is the world's third-largest jailer of journalists, with a total of 35 media workers behind bars.

PEN America Lists Vietnam as the Third Largest Jailer of Writers

PEN America, a nonprofit organization that promotes the freedom to write, classified Vietnam among the top 10 countries of concern due to its restriction of freedom of expression and the persecution of influential social media voices and dissidents. The Southeast Asian country was on par with Saudi Arabia regarding the number of writers jailed in 2023, with 19 individuals. According to PEN, Asia-Pacific has the highest number of jailed writers based on geographic region.

PEN’s annual report, “Freedom to Write Index 2023,” published on May 1, mentioned journalist and activist Pham Doan Trang, who is serving a nine-year sentence on “anti-state” allegations, as an example of those imprisoned for demanding democracy in Vietnam. Trang is an awardee of PEN’s Barbey Freedom to Write Award this year, thanks to her “freedom in the pursuit of justice,” said CEO Suzanne Nossel.

The one-party Communist state has weaponized its Penal Code and the Cybersecurity Law to clamp down on and arrest writers and dissidents. Those legislations include Articles 109 and 117, forbidding activities that threaten “national security.” Article 331, another law that criminalizes alleged online libel and defamation, aims to suppress those voices critical of the government and the Communist regime.

PEN’s report highlights the situation of Dang Dang Phuoc, a music teacher and online commentator, who was sentenced to eight years in prison due to his Facebook postings criticizing the government. Another case of concern is independent journalist Le Huu Minh Tuan, who received a lengthy prison term of 11 years and is in poor health. Tuan’s health has reportedly declined in prison, where he was denied adequate medical care. He suffers from multiple illnesses and medical conditions.

In addition to its suppression and imprisonment of independent writers, the Vietnamese government has monopolized traditional forms of media such as radio, television, newspapers, and magazines.

Social media space, where discussions of social issues and criticisms of the government once thrived, is now under increasing government control. Force 47, a state-funded digital militia, abuses community standards of social media platforms and mass reports the dissenting content, which reduces those contents' visibility on social media. The government’s mandated data localization, which means the databases must remain in Vietnam, and ID requirements for social media users, PEN notes, endangers their right to remain anonymous online and, therefore, obstruct freedom on the internet.

USCIRF Urges Designation of Vietnam as ‘Country of Particular Concern’ Due to Systematic Religious Freedom Violations

According to a report released on May 1, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) urged the State Department to designate Vietnam as a “country of particular concern” due to its “systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom.” On Dec. 29, 2023, the State Department listed Vietnam among the “special watchlist countries” regarding freedom of religion.

USCIRF, an independent agency established by the US Congress that monitors religious freedom practices, wrote that Vietnam has made no progress in the protection of freedom of religion while violations persist. Meanwhile, it added, the authorities continued to persecute independent spiritual groups and communities, which state media and officials described as “strange, false, or heretical” religions. 

Many ethnoreligious minority groups, including the Christian Montagnards, Hmong Protestants, Khmer Krom Buddhists, and adherents of the Duong Van Minh religion, have continuously faced persecution from their local police. The authorities also pressure followers of these religions to renounce their faith or join state-controlled religious organizations. The government also punished missionaries and practitioners of these groups by sentencing them on charges of  “undermining national unity” and “abusing democratic freedoms.” 

Vietnam’s Constitution guarantees its citizens the freedom of religion and beliefs and claims that “all religions are equal before the law.” However, according to USCIRF, the authorities continue to monitor all religious activity closely, harass and detain religious figures, or prevent unregistered faith communities from exercising their fundamental right. The 2016 Law on Belief and Religion also requires religious groups to register with the government before operating legally. The authorities in Vietnam have also used this law to shut down or reject registration applications from religious groups they deem untrustworthy.

As part of their report, the religious commission has proposed several recommendations for the U.S. government to formulate its foreign policy towards Hanoi, given its hostile attitude towards independent religions.

They include more engagement with the Vietnamese government and other academic and civil organizations to amend its current Law on Belief and Religion and pushing for an assessment of whether Vietnam has violated the terms of the 2005 U.S.-Vietnam binding agreement on the rights of religious believers and ethnic minorities and its duties as a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC).

The report also urged the State Department to press Vietnam to allow relevant UN special rapporteurs and staff from the Office of the High Commissioner

for Human Rights to monitor and investigate the country's religious freedom and other human rights violations. It also proposed the U.S. mission in Vietnam highlight and monitor the conditions of religious prisoners of conscience and to advocate for their well-being in prison and their release.

Parliament Approves Chairman Vuong Dinh Hue’s Dismissal

The National Assembly, Vietnam’s parliament, convened an extraordinary session on May 2 and issued a resolution to approve the dismissal of its chairman, Vuong Dinh Hue. Earlier, on April 26, the Central Committee of the Vietnamese Communist Party reportedly approved Hue’s resignation due to his “violation of party and state’s regulations.” The parliament’s resolution was said to formalize the dismissal of Hue following the Central Committee's decision.

State media and official party announcements have not specified Hue's alleged misconduct, and the former parliamentary chairman has not been subject to any investigations by the prosecution agency.

Many observers believe the Politburo's November 2021 Decision 41-QD/TW has helped many accused party members and state officials evade criminal investigations.

According to Article 5 of Decision 41, state officials condemned by competent authorities for their “degeneration in political ideology, ethics, and lifestyle” and “violations of what party members are not allowed to do” will be disqualified. In other words, these officials are allowed to resign and avoid political and criminal responsibilities. Corruption is assumed to be a primary factor in the resignation of many Vietnamese officials. 

The National Assembly Standing Committee, which oversees the general duties of the parliament, appointed Tran Thanh Man, its standing vice chairman, to be in charge of the National Assembly’s tasks until a new chairperson is elected.

Vietnam Insight: Learn more about Vietnam

Viet Communist Party Eats its Own

Asia Sentinel/ David Brown/ May 4

“Analysts of Vietnam’s politics have tended to view these dismissals as an extension of Party leader Nguyễn Phú Trọng’s six-year campaign to purge the CPV of “corrupt elements” and doctrinal backsliders. None seem to doubt the sincerity of Trọng’s campaign which one analyst, David Hutt summarizes as a quixotic “attempt to perfect human nature rather than look at the institutional causes of corruption.”

However, it now seems more plausible that after 13-plus years at the party’s helm, the aging general secretary has been captured by the so-called ‘party faction’ – and in particular by supporters of Minister of Public Security To Lam’s candidacy to succeed Trọng as General Secretary when the 14th Party congress convenes in January 2026, if not sooner.”

With Latest Resignations, Vietnam’s ‘Game of Thrones’ Intensifies

The Diplomat/ Huynh Tam Sang/ May 1

“The leadership crisis in Vietnam has numerous causes, but the root causes are probably blatant corruption and factional strife within the CPV. In this context, heated speculation about who will be appointed the next president and chief of the National Assembly is inevitable. Dominance, compromise, consensus, and even competition, all happening behind closed doors, are bound to be especially heated, given that the race for the top positions ahead of the next Party Congress in early 2026 has already begun. While the CPV will likely attempt to preserve the internal balance of power, through its tried-and-true collective leadership structure, its ability to sustain economic growth while discouraging corruption among high-ranking officials remains uncertain.”

As West draws closer to Vietnam, Hanoi gets more like Beijing

Nikkei Asia/ Dien Luong/ March 26

“In Vietnam's case, Communist Party factions with strongholds in the country's defense, security and ideology agencies have been on the ascendance since 2016. This has put the country on a relentless trajectory of tightened controls over civil society and public discourse in the mainstream media and in cyberspace.

Laws and regulations have been weaponized to more strictly censor online content and persecute critics. Foreign Big Tech platforms like Facebook have been browbeaten into compliance with Hanoi's demands to remove politically sensitive posts.”

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