Two prominent Vietnamese musicians have become the latest activists to be jailed for spreading songs that are critical of the Chinese government.
Despite strict censorship spanning decades, composers in Vietnam have rarely been prosecuted for the content of their music. However the work of Vo Minh Tri, better known under his pen name Viet Khang, and Tran Vu Anh Binh crossed the line.
At a court in Ho Chi Minh City on Tuesday, activists say the two became the first musicians in recent memory to be given jail terms for their music. Khang was sentenced to four years in jail and two under house arrest, while Binh was jailed for six years, also with two years house arrest.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia Director of Human Rights Watch said an overseas opposition group had claimed Binh was a member. He said the group claimed Binh wrote songs supporting dissidents and supporting the anti-China protests.
“We haven’t actually been able to get to the bottom of that, whether it’s true or not," he said. "Obviously when an exiled group claims someone in Vietnam is a member, there are both positive and negative sides to that. Whether that figured in the sentencing or not is unclear.”
In the wake of police crackdowns on anti-China protesters across Vietnam, Viet Khang wrote two songs: "Anh La Ai?," which means Who are You? and NuocToi Dau?, which translates as "Where is My Country?" When he uploaded them onto YouTube the songs went viral.
In "Where is My Country"' Khang asks security forces:
“Where is your nationalism?
Why consciously take orders from China?
You will leave a mark to last a thousand years
Your hands will be stained with the blood of our people.”
He was arrested in December and charged with conducting propaganda against the state under Article 88 of the penal code. His mother, 56-year-old Chung Thị Thu Van, said a day before the trial she hoped the court would be lenient.
When she heard police had arrested him, she asked them if she could see her son before they took him away but they refused.
Khang’s case sparked a campaign in the United States called Free Viet Khang
. His name is also included in a petition sent to the U.S. President in February demanding the release of prominent dissidents. So far it has attracted over 150,000 signatures.
Under Vietnamese law, musicians have to seek permission from censors before they broadcast their work to a public audience. Observers say this encourages self-censorship and stifles dissent before it becomes public. Although Viet Khang’s work was an Internet hit, the audience was still restricted because it did not reach mainstream broadcasters.
Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch
says that may not matter, particularly with the government's new focus on artistic expression and state security.
"I’m presuming that it’s connected to the fact these songs have gone viral and have been widely distributed on the Internet," he said. "But the other side of it with the Vietnam government being increasingly influenced and driven by the prerogatives of the Ministry of Public Security, everything’s fair game."
Observers say the government is particularly sensitive to anti-China sentiment, after tensions rose between the two countries over competing territorial claims in the South China Sea earlier this year and in the summer of 2011. Many believe authorities are concerned anti-China protests could become anti-government if left unchecked.