A VIETNAMESE court has sentenced 22-year-old Nguyen Van Hoa, an independent journalist and blogger, to seven years in prison on November 27. His imprisonment will be followed by three years of house arrest for his coverage of a major environmental disaster last year.
The sentence is the latest in an ongoing crackdown on alleged dissent following the notorious 2016 Formosa chemical spill, which devastated several of Vietnam’s north-central coastal provinces in the spring of that year. Formosa Plastics Group, a massive Taiwanese conglomerate, illegally discharged huge amounts of chemical waste into the sea from a multi-billion dollar steel plant it is building in Ha Tinh Province.
The chemicals ravaged aquatic species in the region, wiping out the income of thousands of fishermen in what are some Vietnam’s poorest villages and leaving dozens of tons of dead fish on local beaches. The name Formosa is now synonymous with one of the worst environmental disasters in the county’s history.
According to an account from Hoa’s sister, published in the Vietnamese version of BBC, police originally notified the family that he was arrested for “motorbike theft and drug trafficking.” Hoa and his family have denied any wrongdoing.
Hoa, who was sentenced at a closed trial, was found guilty of “spreading propaganda against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam,” according to state-owned Tuoi Tre News. Hoa wrote posts about the disaster and shared videos and pictures of the aftermath on Facebook, which is widely used in Vietnam. During the brief trial, the government alleged that Hoa helped stage these videos and photos in order to spur anti-state protests, in addition to receiving funds from “extremists” and “reactionary individuals.”
Vietnam’s leadership considers certain pro-democracy overseas Vietnamese groups to be terrorist organisations, and often claims they are involved in protests within the country.
Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, told the New York Times after news of Hoa’s punishment broke that “the sentencing of Nguyen Van Hoa shows how profoundly the government’s paranoid desire to maintain political control trumps notions of justice and human rights.”
He went on: “How else can one explain that executives of an international firm that poisoned the ocean, ruining the coastal economy in four provinces, are free to go about their business while this idealistic young journalist is heading to prison for helping expose their misdeeds?”
The weeks which followed the Formosa disaster saw some of Vietnam’s largest public demonstrations in several years. Crowds marched in the country’s two largest cities, Hanoi and here in Ho Chi Minh City. Their anger was initially directed at Formosa, but the government’s tone-deaf response to the chemical spill quickly attracted public ire, which is when security forces were deployed to prevent further protests.
Hoa isn’t the first blogger to be punished for their coverage of the highly sensitive Formosa issue, though it should be noted that no public officials or anyone from Formosa’s leadership has received similar treatment.
The most notable activist to be jailed since last April is Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, who is known as Mother Mushroom. She was sentenced to 10 years in prison in August for her writings on Formosa, as well the environment as a whole and other issues such as police brutality.
This harsh sentence, even by Vietnam’s repressive standards, shocked many and drew swift condemnation from around the world. Quynh had previously received the International Woman of Courage Award from First Lady Melania Trump. The blogger’s daughter sent a letter directly to the First Lady asking for her to intervene in the case ahead of President Donald Trump’s visit to Vietnam in early November, but no response has been made public.
On November 30, Quynh’s sentence was upheld after a brief appeal hearing in the coastal city of Nha Trang. This came four days after one her lawyers was disbarred for his support of defendants whom the state deems to be dissidents.