Five Vietnamese journalists accused by authorities in southern Vietnam’s Can Tho province of slandering government leaders in their investigative reports will now be charged only with “abusing democratic freedoms” after an investigation failed to produce evidence of more serious State-secrets charges against them.
Police investigators on Friday announced that the writers for the popular Facebook page Clean Newspaper (Bao Sach), which discussed Vietnamese social issues and has now been taken offline, have been referred to provincial prosecutors for trial on a charge of “abusing democratic freedoms to infringe on the interests of the State and individuals” under Article 331 of Vietnam’s 2015 Penal Code.
Four of the reporters—Truong Chau Huu Danh, arrested on Dec. 17 last year, and Nguyen Thanh Nha, Doan Kien Giang, and Nguyen Phuoc Trung Bao, arrested on April 20—had 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.
They had also written articles criticizing 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.
A fifth member of the group, Le The Thang, has also now been charged and is being held under house arrest at his home.
Following a first investigation ending in May, a police search of Truong Chau Huu Danh’s home uncovered government documents containing confidential material, leading to calls for a new investigation into charges of “intentionally disclosing State secrets, appropriating, buying or selling or disposing of items or secrets of the State.”
The new charge, which is no longer being pursued, would have carried a possible death sentence on conviction.
Harsh forms of persecution
With Vietnam’s media all following Communist Party orders, “the only sources of independently-reported information are bloggers and independent journalists, who are being subjected to ever-harsher forms of persecution,” the press freedoms watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) says in its 2021 Press Freedoms Index.
Measures taken against them now include assaults by plainclothes police, RSF said in its report, which placed Vietnam at 175 out of 180 countries surveyed worldwide, a ranking unchanged from last year.
“To justify jailing them, the Party resorts to the criminal codes, especially three articles under which ‘activities aimed at overthrowing the government,’ ‘anti-state propaganda’ and ‘abusing the rights to freedom and democracy to threaten the interests of the state’ are punishable by long prison terms,” the rights group said.
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. But arrests continue in 2021.
Reported by RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Translated by An Nguyen. Written in English by Richard Finney.
This content originally appeared on Radio Free Asia and was authored by Radio Free Asia.