Freelance journalists of the Independent Journalists Association of Vietnam Pham Chi Dung (R), Le Huu Minh Tuan (C) and Nguyen…
Freelance journalists of the Independent Journalists Association of Vietnam Pham Chi Dung, right, Le Huu Minh Tuan, center, and Nguyen Tuong Thuy stand during their trial Jan. 5, 2021.

WASHINGTON - A Vietnamese court on Tuesday sentenced Pham Chi Dung, a prominent government critic and contributor to Voice of America (VOA), to 15 years in prison for “making and disseminating propaganda against the state.”

Dung’s co-accused — the journalists Nguyen Tuong Thuy and Le Huu Minh Tuan — were each sentenced to 11 years in prison, and all three will face three years’ probation after their release, a defense lawyer said.

Dung, 55, is the president and founder of the Independent Journalist Association of Vietnam. Established in 2014, the platform advocates for freedom of expression, media freedom and democracy in a country where all media is state owned and the Communist Party has built a large apparatus to stifle dissent.

Authorities summoned Dung several times in connection with the association before his arrest in 2019.

Lawyer says verdicts harsh

Nguyen Van Mieng, one of two lawyers defending Dung and Thuy, told VOA the verdicts were harsh. “These three people demonstrated their rights of freedom of press and advocate for democracy and human rights, but were convicted under the charge ‘propaganda against the state,’” said Mieng.

Authorities accused them of advocating for changing the political regime, Mieng said, adding that all three rejected the accusations.

“In his final statement to the court, Pham Chi Dung said that if he was sentenced to a harsh verdict, it would be a blatant violation of freedom of the press, as well as other democracy and human rights in Vietnam,” Mieng told VOA.

International rights groups including Amnesty International say the verdict underscores the government’s contempt for free media, particularly ahead of the Party’s national congress, which is due to take place this month.

“Even by its own deeply repressive standards, the severity of the sentences show the depths being reached by Vietnam’s censors,” Amnesty’s deputy regional director, Emerlynne Gil, said.

Media watchdog  Reporters Without Borders  (RSF) said the sentences were “clearly designed to extinguish any form of civil society debate” ahead of the congress.

Poor media freedom record

Vietnam has a poor media freedom record, ranking 175th out of 180 countries, where 1 is the most free, according to RSF’s press freedom Index. The government bans independent or privately owned media outlets, exerts strict control over radio and TV stations and printed publications, and routinely blocks access to politically sensitive websites.

Dung’s wife, Bui Thi Hong Loan, who attended Tuesday’s hearing in Ho Chi Minh City, told VOA she was not surprised by the sentence but that the verdicts and evidence presented against her husband were “ambiguous.”

The court said that the journalists had regular contact with politically dissatisfied groups and posted articles that distorted the policies of the party and state, the Vietnamese state-run news website VNExpress reported

Their actions “endanger society, oppose the State and disrupt social solidarity,” the court ruled.

Dung, Thuy and several others are accused in an indictment of creating the Independent Journalists Association of Vietnam to “fight and change the current political institutions of Vietnam.” Dung’s work with the association and his writing for foreign outlets including the U.S. Agency for Global Media, which oversees VOA and Radio Free Asia (RFA), were cited in the indictment.

'Appalled by 'heavy sentences'

International media and human rights watchdogs have condemned the verdict.

“RSF is truly appalled by these very heavy sentences. It is all the more shocking to know that the hearing was less than half a day long,” Daniel Bastard, head of the Asia-Pacific desk for RSF, wrote to VOA Vietnamese.

“It shows the current Communist Party leadership's total contempt for the social Republic of Vietnam's constitution and its Article 25, which proclaims press freedom. This decision has again demonstrated the shoddiness of Vietnamese justice,” Bastard said.

The Committee to Protect Journalists described the sentences as “outrageous” and said the verdict shows “the country’s government has no intention of allowing even the most basic elements of a free press.” 

And Human Rights Watch said in a statement, “Democracy dies without freedom of expression and the press, and the work of independent journalists like these three who dare expose malfeasance and demand reforms to end abuse of power.”

Vietnamese authorities arrested freelancer Dung on November 21, 2019; Thuy, a 70-year-old blogger for RFA, in May; and Le Huu Minh Tuan, 31, a representative of the younger generation of independent journalists, in June.

Charges called 'bogus'

Ahead of the trial, Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, called the charges “bogus.”

“If the ruling party is so assured in its leadership, it should demonstrate its confidence by respecting civil and political rights, ending its tight control of the press, and allowing independent journalists to freely voice their opinions instead of silencing them with arrest and long prison sentences,” he said.

Vietnam is the second-worst jailer of journalists in Asia, after China, with at least 15 behind bars according to data released last month by CPJ

(This story originated in VOA’s Vietnamese service)