Between April and May 2016 millions of fish carcasses washed up on the shores of Vietnam. It was the worst environmental disaster in the country’s history, decimating the local fishing industry and crippling tourism.
The party responsible was the Formosa steel plant in Ha Tinh on the north central coast. The plant illegally discharged 300 tons of cyanide and other toxic industrial waste into the ocean through drainage pipes. Emboldened by the government’s tepid response to the ecological catastrophe, Formosa denied responsibility for months. It was not until June 2016 the corporation acknowledged it was at fault.
In the meantime, thousands of Vietnamese citizens protested the tragedy and lack of accountability. They staged demonstrations and took to social media to express their anger with Formosa and the government that should have protected them.
Journalist Nguyen Van Hoa was there to capture the bubbling discontent of the thousands impacted by the devastation. As a videographer for Radio Free Asia’s Vietnamese language service, he was the first person to broadcast live footage of protests outside the Formosa plant. In October 2016, his footage of more than 10,000 peaceful protesters went viral.
The Vietnamese government did not appreciate Hoa’s on the ground reporting. In November 2016, police beat Hoa and confiscated his camera and phone.
The harassment worsened. Exactly two years ago, on January 11, 2017, Hoa was arrested for alleged drug possession. It was two long weeks before his family finally received notice of his detention, but with new charges of “abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the State.” This sliver of information was all Hoa’s family was provided for months. Hoa would not be allowed to meet with his family until April 2017, shortly after he taped a confession that was broadcast on television.
It was around this time the government officially announced Hoa’s arrest and changed the charges against him. He was now accused of violating the notorious Article 88 of the 1999 Criminal Code – “disseminating propaganda against the state” – a charge which carried a heavy sentence.
Hoa spent nearly a year in detention before his trial began in November 2017. The trial was a short affair; Hoa was convicted and sentenced to seven years in prison followed by three years of house arrest in only two and a half hours. Although the Vietnamese government claimed that the trial was open to the public, only Hoa’s sister was permitted to enter the courtroom.
Over the last two years, Hoa has faced harsh treatment in prison. In October 2018, he was able to send a letter to his family which described physical abuse and ploys to coerce him into testifying against other activists in cases with which he had no connection. The following month, Freedom Now and Dechert LLP filed a petition with the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention on Hoa’s behalf.
Disturbingly, Hoa’s story is not unique. The Vietnamese government has undertaken a systematic attack on journalists, bloggers, and activists over the past several years. During 2017, at least 21 bloggers and activists were arrested for exercising their right to freedom of expression. Moreover, the government has passed a series of laws to enable its repression of civil society. These laws attempt to legitimize practices that violate Vietnam’s obligations to safeguard freedom of expression, association, assembly, and religious practice under international law.
In November 2017, Freedom Now and American University’s Washington College of Law published a report detailing these various laws and providing recommendations to Vietnam and the international community on how to ensure respect for fundamental human rights. A valuable first step would be to release Hoa immediately and unconditionally before he marks a third year in prison.