Vietnam celebrates National Press Day amid increased crackdowns on independent mediaJun 25, 2020
Vietnam celebrated the 95th anniversary of its Revolutionary Press Day on Sunday, June 21. The celebration and official opening of Vietnam Press Museum took place despite severe restrictions on actual independent journalism in the country, and while Vietnam ranks 175th out of 180 countries in its 2020 World Press Freedom Index.
According to state media, the 95th National Revolutionary Press Day of Vietnam was widely celebrated in the country with the award ceremony of the 14th national press prize, and the official opening of Vietnam Press Museum on June 19th. These events were organized by the Vietnam Journalists Association – a structure administered by the Vietnam Communist Party under the supervision of the Central Propaganda Department.
The Vietnam Journalists Association is the only occupational organization of journalists officially recognized by the state despite booming new media and social media based outlets in the country. In stark contrast, a civil society organization with a very similar name – the Independent Journalists Association of Vietnam (IJAV) has experienced a variety of hostilities. The IJAV was founded in July 2014 to promote media freedom and democracy. Its members, all independent writers and bloggers, have contributed commentary pieces for its website Viet Nam Thoi Bao (Vietnam Times), supported political prisoners and fellow activists, and attended human rights-related events.
The crackdown on the IJAV began with the arrest of Pham Chi Dung in November 2019, apparently due to his vocal opposition to the EU-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement which was then hotly debated in the European Parliament. Two other members of the IJAV, Nguyen Tuong Thuy and Pham Thanh were arrested on May 23 and 21 respectively amidst the COVID-19 outbreak in Vietnam. Most recently, Le Huu Minh Tuan, a young member of the IJAV, was arrested on 12 June by the police in Ho Chi Minh City after months of threats and intimidations from the public security authorities. All the four arrested members of the IJAV were charged with spreading anti-state propaganda under article 117 of the 2015 Criminal Code. They may face up to 20 years in prison if found guilty.
The European Union Delegation to Vietnam, in its Facebook statement on the National Revolutionary Press Day, expressed its concern for “the severity of restrictions and sentencing in cases related to the right to exercise freedom of expression online and offline” in Vietnam, citing the cases of Nguyen Tuong Thuy, Le Huu Minh Tuan and Pham Thanh.
The international human rights group Reporters Without Borders ranks Vietnam 175th out of 180 countries in its 2020 World Press Freedom Index.
A challenging time ahead for free speech in Vietnam
The encroachments on freedom of expression in Vietnam can be partially explained by the approaching Communist Party Congress scheduled in January 2021 and the subsequent national election. According to Human Rights Watch, prior to past congresses, Vietnamese authorities harshly clamped down on dissidents and activists to ensure that the congress appears to run smoothly and without any dissident or opposition voices.
Vietnam swiftly ratified the EU-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement (EVFTA) on June 8 2020 while arresting independent critics and writers, signalling a lack of commitment to human rights and accountability as promised in the EVFTA. According to the EVFTA, civil society plays an advisory role in its implementation, monitoring and supervision. It also obliges Vietnam to ratify ILO Convention No. 87 on Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise by 2023. Judicial attacks on the IJAV – including their EVFTA critics – in no way comply with the human rights aspirations expressed in the EVFTA.
The heightened crackdown on free speech has spread to the online sphere. Most recently Vietnam arrested two Facebook users, Huynh Anh Khoa and Nguyen Dang Thuong, over their affiliation with a Facebook group that holds discussions about Vietnam’s socio-economic issues. They were both charged with anti-state propaganda.