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Vietnam Using Jail to 'Silence' Human Rights Journalist, Lawyer Says

Vietnamese journalist and blogger Pham Doan Trang, pictured during an interview with VOA in 2015.
Vietnamese journalist and blogger Pham Doan Trang, pictured during an interview with VOA in 2015.

For more than two years, Pham Doan Trang has been behind bars in a move that her supporters believe is linked to the Vietnamese blogger's coverage of human rights.

Trang was detained in October 2020, and a court in December 2021 convicted her of distributing "anti-state propaganda" in a trial lasting one day.

She is now serving a nine-year sentence in the southern Binh Duong province, located more than 1,500 kilometers from the capital, Hanoi, where Trang had been taken after her arrest.

Kurtulus Bastimar, an international human rights lawyer representing Trang, believes the legal case against his client is an attempt to stifle her.

"In order to silence Pham, the government is trying to give the impression that her detention is related to state security issues and making 'anti-state propaganda,' when this is not true," Bastimar said in a phone interview with VOA.

"She was persecuted and arrested for exercising her right to freedom of expression, freedom of opinion and freedom of association," Bastimar said.

Trang, the founder of the legal magazine Luat Khoa, specialized in human rights coverage. She also contributed to the independent English-language website The Vietnamese.

Her journalism has led to previous harassment from authorities — and international recognition, including a 2022 U.S. Secretary of State International Women of Courage award.

On Thursday, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) will honor Trang with one of its International Press Freedom Awards.

"CPJ honored Trang for her courageous reporting in the face of persistent threats, violence and persecution," CPJ's senior Southeast Asia representative Shawn Crispin told VOA. "She epitomizes the bravery of so many Vietnamese reporters who defy the government's censorship at the risk of imprisonment."

Trang is one of at least 23 journalists detained for their work in Vietnam, according to CPJ data. More than half of those jailed report on human rights, and nearly all face "anti-state charges," CPJ found.

Vietnam often uses laws against "articles aimed at overthrowing the government," "anti-state propaganda" or "abusing the rights to freedom and democracy" to bring charges against bloggers or independent journalists, according to Protect Defenders. The EU-funded organization is a consortium of human rights organizations.

Trang's arrest works as a deterrent to others in independent media, CPJ's Crispin said via email from Bangkok.

"Independent reporters can elude the [Vietnam Communist] Party's censorship directives by publishing independently on social media, but [they] are always at risk of arrest and imprisonment for crossing the party's vague and arbitrary lines," Crispin said.

The risk of arrest, Crispin said, "makes Vietnam one of the most dangerous places in Asia to be an independent journalist."

Neither Vietnam's embassy in Washington nor its Ministry of Foreign Affairs' Foreign Press Center responded to VOA's emails requesting comment.

Vietnam has a poor media freedom record, ranking 174 out of 180 countries on the Press Freedom Index, where 1 indicates the best media environment.

Media watchdog Reporters Without Borders, which compiles the index, says official media toe the government line, and independent journalists are "the only sources of freely reported news and information."

With options for independent media limited, many journalists use social media platforms to cover news.

But as well as the risk of arrest, journalists using Facebook and YouTube to report can find their accounts blocked, or posts removed.

Amnesty International in late 2020 described social media platforms operating in Vietnam as "hunting grounds for censors, military cyber-troops and state sponsored trolls."

The country's Foreign Ministry rejected those findings and said at the time that international businesses must operate "on the basis of compliance with Vietnamese laws." The Ministry of Information has said previously it removes only posts that it deems illegal or propaganda.

Crispin said independent reporters rely on social media due to heavy censorship, especially on issues related to the environment, human rights and democracy.

"Trang's harsh conviction and sentencing sent a signal to all of Vietnam's independent journalists and bloggers that they could be next if they report, as she did, on perceived-as-sensitive issues," Crispin said.

In August, a court upheld the conviction against Trang, in a move the U.S. State Department said it was "deeply concerned" by.

In a statement, State spokesperson Ned Price said, "Trang's continued detention is the latest instance in an alarming pattern of arrests and sentencing of individuals in Vietnam for peacefully expressing their opinions."

Trang's lawyer Bastimar says he will not be deterred in fighting for the blogger's case.

He told VOA he plans to connect with international human rights advocacy organizations to jointly follow Trang's case.

Bastimar says he has seen a number of similar cases involving government critics.

Crispin of CPJ raised concerns over Trang's imprisonment, noting she had reported on prisoner abuse.

Trang on Thursday will be recognized for her work alongside journalists from Ukraine, Cuba and Iraqi Kurdistan at the CPJ International Press Freedom Awards.