Vietnam court sentences ‘Clean Newspaper’ journalists to long prison terms

A court in southern Vietnam on Thursday sentenced five independent journalists to long prison terms after a two-day trial, putting them behind bars for a total of 14 years and six months for writing articles authorities said had slandered government leaders.

The members of the now-shuttered Clean Newspaper Facebook group had been charged under Clause 2, Article 331 of Vietnam’s Penal Code with “abusing the rights to freedom and democracy to violate the State’s interests and the legitimate rights and interests of organizations and individuals.”

Handed the heaviest sentence, journalist Truong Chau Huu Danh was sentenced to four years and six months, while Doan Kien Giang and Le The Thang received sentences of three years each, and Nguyen Phuoc Trung Bao and Nguyen Thanh Nha were each given two-year sentences.

The five will also be barred from working as journalists for three years after finishing their prison terms, the court in Can Tho city said.

“The sentence especially for Truong Chau Huu Danh was too severe, and the sanctions used under Article 331 are too harsh,” independent journalist Duong Van Thai told RFA following the trial. “Authoritarian countries will give someone a harsh verdict if they want to destroy them,” he said.

“In fact, the Communist regime doesn’t want to listen to any critical, dissenting voices,” Thai said. “They only like praise, hate criticism, and dislike any new ideas.”

“They are never lenient with political dissidents and always give them much harsher penalties. This is the easiest way for Vietnam’s Communist regime to get revenge,” he said.

Thai added that the group may have been given especially harsh sentences because of their reports on infighting among Communist Party leaders, including a series of stories they wrote about former Dak Lak provincial party secretary Bui Van Cuong.

Cuong, now the secretary general of Vietnam’s National Assembly, had been accused by two lecturers from Ton Duc Thang University of plagiarism in completing work for his PhD degree. The two lecturers were themselves later arrested.

Clean Newspaper journalists had also posted criticisms online of the Jan. 9, 2020 raid by security forces intervening in a land dispute at Dong Tam commune outside Hanoi in which a village elder was shot dead by police.

Other articles had criticized the widely unpopular build-operate-transfer (BOT) highway schemes adopted by Vietnam in recent years that have sparked rare protests over toll collections described by motorists as unfair.

‘Not enemies of the state’

Vietnam’s government should recognize that citizen journalists and independent media are “allies of good governance, not enemies of the state,” Human Rights Watch deputy Asia director Phil Robertson said in a statement on Tuesday, a day before the trial began.

“Throwing more citizen journalists into prison is not going to stop people from complaining, or demanding reforms in Vietnam,” Robertson said.

In a statement following the trial, Daniel Bastard, head of the Asia-Pacific desk for Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF)—said that Vietnamese authorities have now given “new evidence of their determination to suppress any attempt to provide freely reported news and information.”

“Worse still, by banning them from practicing their trade altogether, [the judges] have shown what little account Vietnam’s leaders take of journalism. These five journalists have no place being in prison,” Bastard said.

Vietnam is ranked 175th out of 180 countries in RSF’s World Press Freedom Index for 2021.

Vietnam’s already low tolerance of dissent deteriorated sharply last year with a spate of arrests of independent journalists, publishers, and Facebook personalities as authorities continued to stifle critics in the run-up to the ruling Communist Party Congress in January. Arrests continue in 2021.

Reported by RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Translated by Anna Vu. Written in English by Richard Finney.

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