International human rights groups said that coinciding with the elections and the West getting distracted by the pandemic, Hanoi has exploited the circumstances and intensified its suppression of oppositions by handing out long long prison sentences to more than a dozen reporters.  

Title: With West Distracted by Pandemic, Vietnam Ramps Up Repression
Publish Date: January 11, 2022
Publisher: Voice of America


Conditions for media in Vietnam have rarely been so bad, media analysts say, with the country jailing over a dozen reporters in the past 12 months, and courts handing out unusually long sentences.

The rise in arrests came as Vietnam's ruling Communist Party held its 13th Party Congress and voted for the next five-year National Assembly term in 2021.

International rights groups believe Hanoi intensified efforts to suppress dissent or opposition voices during the elections and at a time when the coronavirus pandemic has distracted the West from scrutinizing Vietnam’s actions.

“Vietnam has accelerated its rights abuses across the board, going after community activists, human rights defenders, and political dissidents in a systematic manner that points to a Hanoi plan to wipe out any opposition to its rule," said Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Human Rights Watch Asia division.

Data from media freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) shows an increase in the number of journalists behind bars, with 43 detained.

“The current situation of press freedom in Vietnam has rarely been so bad,” said Daniel Bastard, head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk. “Vietnam is the world’s third-largest prison for journalists, right after autocratic regimes like Xi [Jinping]’s China, and junta-ruled Myanmar.”

The decline in media rights last year, started with the trial of members of the Independent Journalists Association of Vietnam, including founder and president Pham Chi Dung in January, and ending with the sentencing of prominent journalists and activists in December.

Those cases included the award-winning Pham Doan Trang and Le Trong Hung, a journalist who announced plans to run as an independent candidate in the National Assembly election.

The trend of arrests spilled over into the new year, with a Hanoi court on Tuesday sentencing Mai Phan Loi, a former journalist and founder of a nonprofit, to 48 months in jail for tax evasion.

Independent Journalists Association of Vietnam founder Dung received one of the longest prison sentences handed down to a journalist worldwide, with a 15-year term on charges of propaganda against the state, according to RSF.

Trang, who is internationally recognized for her fight for democracy and human rights in Vietnam, also received a lengthy sentence. A court ordered her detained for nine years — longer than the penalty prosecutors requested.

Activists and the international community view the convictions as a warning to dissidents.

“Human rights in Vietnam have deteriorated in 2021, as the Communist Party used bogus articles of the 2015 Penal Code, including 'propaganda against the state' and 'abuse of democratic freedoms,' to suppress dissenters and freedom of expression,” said Vu Quoc Ngu, director of Vietnam’s Defend the Defenders.

The organization documents rights violations in Vietnam and provides cybersecurity and journalism training.

Western neglect

Ngu, a 2019 Franco-German Human Rights and the Rule of Law awardee, believes the pandemic is partly to blame for the increased repression.

“When the world is focusing on controlling the pandemic, Western countries are less interested in Vietnam's human rights situation and so the Vietnamese Communist government has free hands to suppress it," said Ngu, who was once detained for participating in an anti-China protest in Hanoi in 2011.

Robertson, of Human Rights Watch, shared a similar view, telling VOA, “Vietnam has quite clearly taken advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the distraction of the international community that resulted, to try and finish off its opponents."