Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Trang in Ho Chi Minh City in 2019.
The timing was intended as a clear slap in the face for the human rights community. Just hours after the annual US-Vietnam Human Rights Dialogue concluded on October 6, leading Vietnamese journalist and civil society activist Pham Doan Trang was detained by the authorities in Ho Chi Minh City.
Following her midnight arrest, she was swiftly charged under Article 117 with “making, storing, disseminating or propagandising information, materials and products that aim to oppose the State of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam”. Trang now faces a prison sentence of up to 20 years.
This most committed, productive and resilient of reporters joins a very long list of Vietnamese journalists and activists who have been imprisoned in recent years. Their supposed crime has been to simply do their job and exercise the rights granted by the Vietnamese constitution and by international conventions and agreements signed by the government but never respected in practise.
Trang was previously attacked, badly beaten and hospitalised by police in Hanoi in 2018. Both knees were broken and she still walks with a limp.
As well as being a key mentor for dozens of young independent bloggers and journalists over the years who met for undisclosed training sessions in Hanoi and who were regularly followed and threatened by state security police, Trang also co-led Liberal Publishing – a Samizdat-style publishing house in Ho Chi Minh City until earlier this year when the risks were judged simply too great to continue. Some of the books published included her own titles Politics For Everyone and a basic primer for independent Vietnamese reporters.
In 2016, Trang was one of three civil society activists arrested by Vietnamese authorities en route to a private meeting with President Barack Obama during his celebrated visit to Hanoi.
In a letter written and distributed to friends in May last year, Trang had predicted her arrest and urged supporters not to focus on her release, but instead to work for free and fair elections in Vietnam. For many years, Trang has been adamant that her greatest fear was not jail, but being forced into exile.
Pham Doan Trang left this letter with me, to publicize upon her arrest. Please share. pic.twitter.com/lVt52Kpkea— Will Nguyen (阮英惟) (@will_nguyen_) October 7, 2020
In the deeply moving message, she called on her supporters to protect her family, who had “often been threatened by police” adding that the only luxury she wished for in prison was her guitar, as it was “like my bible”.
“I will not admit guilt, confess or beg for leniency; do not believe police if they say [I have] indicate[d] others,” she continued.
Trang went on to write, “Do not give me any priority over other prisoners of conscience. Advocate for the others first, then me.”
If there was to be a campaign, she conceded, it could start in the “third or fourth” year of her imprisonment if it maintained this wider social agenda and allowed her to stay in Vietnam after her release.
“I don’t want freedom just for myself; that’s too easy,” she concluded. “I want something greater: freedom for Vietnam. It might seem like some grand goal, but it’s totally possible – with your support.”
Vietnam enjoys increasingly warm relations with the UK, the European Union and the United States – even though it remains a one-party communist state and consistently languishes at the very bottom of global media freedom and human rights’ indices alongside China.
Despite the brazen timing of Trang’s arrest, there was no immediate comment from the US. Analysts speculate that Vietnam may be seeking to exploit Washington’s electoral distraction to silence dissidents in advance of the forthcoming party congress in January 2021. It ranks 175 out of 180 countries (two ahead of China) in Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index.
Vietnam is classed as “not free” by Freedom House, and according to Amnesty International, its number of prisoners of conscience rose by a third last year.
Respecting Trang’s call for action, we join international demands for her unconditional release – alongside that of all her colleagues.
Anthony Borden is executive director of the Institute for War & Peace Reporting.
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