UPDATED at 1:30 P.M. EDT on 2021-09-10
Authorities in Vietnam on Wednesday indicted five journalists from the Báo Sạch (Clean Newspaper) Facebook-based news outlet on charges of “abusing democracy and freedom to infringe on state interests,” state media reported.
According to the indictment, issued by the Procuracy of Thoi Lai district, in the southern city of Can Tho, the Clean Newspaper staff posted anti-state and reactionary information and delved into information that was “inappropriate, distorting, against the country’s interests, and slanderous of the people’s administration” in violation of Article 331 of Vietnam’s Criminal Code.
The five indicted journalists are: Truong Chau Huu Danh, Nguyen Thanh Nha, Doan Kien Giang, Nguyen Phuong Trung Bao, and Le The Thang.
Thang has been released on bail and is barred from leaving his house while the others have been arrested and detained.
Danh, meanwhile, was also charged with posting stories that “generated bad interactions between internet users in the cyber environment” and “propagandized, distorted, defamed and seriously slandered Party organizations and local Party committees.”
State media reports also said the Clean Newspaper group was paid by businesses to write and publish favorable stories.
According to the indictment, the group’s Facebook fan page, Facebook group, and YouTube channel were created in August 2019. Between the three platforms, the group had published 47 reports or videos dealing with hot-button social issues.
Article 331 and Article 117 of Vietnam’s Penal Code have been criticized by human rights lawyers and organizations as having been used as “a tool to stifle dissenting voices.”
Dang Dinh Manh, a Vietnam-based lawyer, told RFA on Wednesday that the two articles are essentially the same, despite differing text.
“If you want to impose a lighter penalty, go with Article 331 and if you want a more serious one, go with Article 117,” said Manh.
Article 117 imposes penalties for “creating, storing, and disseminating information, documents, items, and publications opposing the Socialist Republic of Vietnam,” while Article 331 prohibits “abusing the rights to freedom and democracy to violate the interests of the state, the legitimate rights and interests of organizations and individuals.”
Manh said an investigator told him during a meeting that prosecutors will choose which article they want to apply to a case depending on how severe they want the punishment to be.
“In general, both articles are aimed at restricting people’s freedom of expression. These articles should not exist because they contradict Vietnam’s very constitution, which allows Vietnamese people to criticize the policies they deem as detrimental to the interests of the country and the people. What the Clean Newspaper group said should not be seen as anti-State,” Manh said.
In its Freedom in the World 2021 report, Washington D.C.-based Freedom House gave Vietnam an overall score of 19 out of a possible 100, a one-point drop from last year’s rating. Vietnam scored three out of 40 in political rights, and 16 out of 60 in civil liberties.
”Freedom of expression, religious freedom, and civil society activism are tightly restricted [and the] authorities have increasingly cracked down on citizens’ use of social media and the internet,” Freedom House 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.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this report incorrectly stated that Le The Thang was still at large. He was arrested but released on bail and is barred from leaving his house.
Reported by RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Translated by Anna Vu. Written in English by Eugene Whong.