Dissident and environmental activist, Nguyen Ngoc Anh, has been sentenced to six years in prison for Facebook posts, which allegedly urged people to take part in peaceful protests and criticised the Vietnamese government.
A provincial court in the south of Vietnam sentenced Ngoc Anh, to six years for “producing, disseminating or propagandising materials and products that aim to oppose the state of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam”.
Anh was arrested in September for writing Facebook posts urging people to take to the streets in protest in June and for his criticism of an environmental disaster in 2016. The Formosa disaster poisoned a large part of the sea and killed millions of fish after a Taiwanese steel company dumped toxic waste into the ocean off central Vietnam. His posts received more than 45,000 likes and upwards of 130,000 comments.
Anh, who is a shrimp farmer and engineer, has also voiced his support for political prisoners and has called for elections to be boycotted.
The European Union has called for his immediate release and accused the Vietnamese government of being in breach of their own constitution.
“Nguyen Ngoc Anh’s right to peaceful freedom of expression is guaranteed by the Vietnamese Constitution,” said the statement released by the EU’s foreign service.
Nicholas Bequelin, a regional director at Amnesty International, told the Guardian that his imprisonment was evidence of the growing number of internet bloggers and activists in Vietnam who are being persecuted “for peacefully discussing public affairs or criticising the government.”
Around 55 million people in Vietnam use social media regularly, but although the communist state ranks 7th in the world for social media engagement, it has severe restrictions limiting freedom of expression online.
The campaign against activists and bloggers was stepped up in 2016 when hard-line administration took over the reins. A draconian new law came into force in January, which forces any technology firm operating in Vietnam, such as Facebook and Google to store and handover to the government “important” personal data on users.
Even before the new law took effect, Facebook reported in May the amount of content it restricted access to Vietnam in the last half of 2018 had increased by 500%.
Fear, Paranoia, and Self-Censorship
There at least 128 political prisoners or prisoners of conscience in Vietnamese jails, and at least 30 of them are journalists and bloggers.
Vietnam’s media controls are among the most severe in Asia and it limped in at 176th out of 180 countries in the world for press freedom.
Most of the media outlets are owned by the government and those that are privately run are kept on a tight leash and are closed down if they put a foot out of line.
Reporters taking up new jobs are forced to sign an agreement with the authorities that their function of “protect the country”, while local reporters are accompanied by government minders on reporting trips.
Even the foreign media need official permission to travel if they are reporting on a story outside Hanoi and are asked to tell the authorities exactly what they are reporting, who they will speak to and what questions they will be asking.
The result of these strict intimidation tactics and surveillance is that many sensitive stories don’t get done and many journalists practice self-censorship.
“Transgressors are invariably warned, fined and if they persist suspended or even jailed,” Carl Thayer, emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales, told Al Jazeera.