A wave of arrests and a one-month publishing ban on a news site over its investigations into environmental damage signal that Vietnam is suppressing criticism ahead of the country’s Party Congress, press freedom groups said.
On June 12, authorities charged Le Huu Minh Tuan, from the Independent Journalists Association of Vietnam, with “opposing the state.” Le is the fourth member of the association to be arrested since the group’s founder, Pham Chi Dung, was detained in November.
Pham, a contributor to various news outlets including Voice of America, helped found the association in 2014. Just before his arrest, Pham appeared in a video message broadcast at a conference focused on human rights and the EU-Vietnam free trade agreement.
Last month, Hanoi authorities arrested the association’s vice-president, Nguyen Tuong Thuy, a blogger who reports for Radio Free Asia (RFA), and Pham Chi Thanh, a blogger who recently published a book on the Communist Party’s general-secretary, according to the media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF).
VOA and RFA are independent U.S. government-funded news outlets.
Aside from the arrests, the Ministry of Information and Communications on May 28 issued a one-month publishing ban on the website of Phu nu Online over its series alleging a construction company was damaging the environment.
John Sifton, the Asia advocacy director of Human Rights Watch, said the arrests and suspension could be a sign that authorities are preparing for the 13th National Party Congress due to take place next year.
“The media is under assault,” Sifton told VOA, adding that the harassment of activists and critics, even months ahead of the congress, was typical.
The media watchdog Reporters Without Borders said the arrests appeared to be “confirmation of the nervousness within the Vietnamese Communist Party’s current leadership six months ahead of its” congress.
“By silencing those who speak out, the Communist Party’s leaders are behaving like a ruling class that just seeks to protect its privileges,” Daniel Bastard, head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk, said in a June 15 statement.
Vietnam is a one-party state. The Communist Party elects up to 19 members of the country’s Politburo, including secretary general, president, prime minister, chair of national assembly, and about 200 members of the central party committee, at the congress.
Sifton said authorities regularly harass members of the Independent Journalists Association, put them under surveillance or hold them under house arrest. The journalists arrested recently all “are charged with anti-state propaganda, an over-broad provision that basically means if you say anything critical, you’ll be in trouble,” Sifton said.
The Ministry of Communications did not respond to VOA’s email requesting comment.
In the case of Phu nu Online, Nguyen Thanh Lam, director of the Authority of Press under Vietnam’s Ministry of Communications and Information, said the website “reported false information causing serious impacts” in a 2019 series about Sun Group, a real estate developer, constructor and travel operator in Da Nang City.
In articles published between September and November of 2019, Phu nu Online alleged that Sun Group was destroying the environment at the Ba Na-Nui Chua nature reserve in Da Nang and in Tam Dao national park in the northern province of Vinh Phuc.
The Sun Group and Da Nang’s Department of Information and Communication sent a complaint that included 255 pages of documents to the Ministry of Information and Communication, according to local media.
The Sun Group did not respond to VOA’s email requesting comment.
The news site was asked to correct the false information and was fined 55 million in Vietnamese currency ($2,358) for journalism and publishing violations. The suspension did not affect its print version or Facebook page.
Vietnam has previously taken action against news outlets or bloggers who report on allegations of environmental damage, and its press is restricted. The Communist Party controls the media and under the 2016 Press Law, news outlets must serve as the voice of the party and state agencies, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Sifton described the publishing ban as “another setback for press freedom.” He added that the government was particularly sensitive to criticism on anything related to construction, issues that could impact fisheries and the 2016 Formosa steel plant toxic spill.
In June last year, a shrimp farmer was sentenced to six years for criticizing the government on Facebook about environmental policies. And in October, filmmaker Thinh Nguyen was briefly detained in what a colleague said was retribution for a film on the arrests of environmental activists.
On May 29, Phu Nu gave details on its Facebook page about the discussions with the Authority of Press and explained why it had published the articles on the Sun Group.
“What we [tried to do] was provide additional information to enable authorities to check, supervise and clarify evaluation and approval procedures to determine the environmental impacts of projects in forest and sea areas that need to be preserved for future generations,” the outlet said.
Nguyen Thu Trang, head of the Phu Nu newspaper in Hanoi, and one of Vietnam’s 100 most powerful women in 2019 as listed by Forbes magazine, wrote on her personal Facebook page on May 28: “Most of Sun Group's projects and constructions are occupied in sensitive areas such as mountains, primeval forests, islands and borders. ”
Nguyen said journalists who worked on the articles were monitored, pressured and intimidated. “We have submitted a report to the Criminal Department of the Ministry of Public Security. But the only response is silence, silence, and silence,” she wrote.
Nguyen Tien Trung, a rights activist in Ho Chi Minh City, told VOA, “Sun Group, a colossal real estate company in Vietnam, has always kept silent about Phụ nu Online newspaper's accusations.”
“This act made me believe that Sun Group had ordered the authorities to punish Phu nu newspapers for exposing Sun Group's environmental crimes,” Nguyen said. “It also turns all the calls to protect the environment from the government, all the protecting-environment taxes imposed by the authorities to hypocritical clichés.”
Readers have expressed support for the newspaper and praised its bravery in fighting deforestation.
“If no newspapers dare to tell the bare truths, expose the interests of the group, this society will be covered by all lies and lies. Thank you – the mighty warriors of just cause,” one reader posted on the Phu Nu Facebook page.
VOA Press Freedom editor Jessica Jerreat contributed to this report