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27th May 2022

Vietnam jails journalist critical of EU trade deal

  • The EU trade deal with Vietnam kicked into action last August. (Photo: World Bank)

A journalist in Vietnam has been sentenced to 15 years in prison for criticising the EU's trade deal with the regime.

Pham Chi Dung, along with two other journalists, were jailed on Tuesday (5 January) in a move condemned by the European Commission.

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  • Pham Chi Dung in an undated photo from his Facebook page (Photo: Pham Chi Dung)

The jailing follows the free trade deal with Vietnam launched last August. It was billed by European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen as one that defends rights.

In a statement issued on Wednesday (6 January), the European Commission made no mention of the free trade pact.

Instead, it highlighted free expression guarantees inscribed in Vietnam's own constitution and a UN review of rights.

"The increasing number of arrests, imprisonment and sentencing of Vietnamese journalists and human rights defenders go in the opposite direction," said the EU statement.

Peter Stano, a European Commission spokesperson, made similar remarks.

He said Vietnam needs to free all those who have been arrested for voicing their opinions.

Stano added that the issue may also be discussed "in a few weeks" at a scheduled meeting of EU foreign ministers.

"We have to do the analytical work, see what the status is between the different member states and then find the best way forward to try to solve all of these problems," he said.

Sanctions unlikely

Any decision for sanctions or a possible suspension of the trade pact would have to be made through a unanimous decision by member states.

That is an unlikely prospect, contrasting the EU's public defence of human rights against lucrative trade deals with oppressive regimes.

"Sanctions is an instrument but not an objective," repeated Stano multiple times, noting procedures must be followed.

The case of Dung appears particularly egregious and broadcasts Hanoi's intentions to ignore EU protests.

The European Parliament had last year appealed for his release but to no avail.

It passed a resolution condemning the abuses. And over 60 MEPs had also spoken out, demanding the European Commission take action.

In mid-December, the EU parliament had also held its first inter-parliament video-conference with Vietnam.

The event was not public. But Pham Chi Dung's case had been raised and again dismissed by Vietnam.

"It shows that Vietnam has no intention whatsoever to abide by the requests and by the calls," said Claudio Francavilla from Human Rights Watch.

Those demands followed a European Parliament decision to rubber-stamp the free trade deal last February, which had been led by an MEP, Jan Zahradil, with hidden connections to the regime.

The MEP later resigned as rapporteur following revelations of those connections by this website.

Now the commission has come out with its own statement in defence of Dung and others caught up by the ruling Vietnam Communist Party.

Francavilla says the commission statement is welcomed, noting that it points to a trend in Vietnam that can no longer be ignored.

Hundreds are thought to be imprisoned for having spoken out against the government, while Hanoi maintains those arrested are not in any way political prisoners.

It has accused Dung and others of spreading anti-state propaganda.

Dung was arrested in November 2019 and less than a week after publishing a commentary piece on Voice of America.

It demanded the EU postpone the trade deal until Vietnam improved human rights.

The government has since stepped up cracking down on social media, with help from Facebook.

According to Amnesty International, Facebook is increasingly complying with Vietnamese authorities' repressive censorship of online expression deemed critical of the state.

It noted an almost 1,000 percent compliance increase by Facebook from the state to remove such content.

Meanwhile, the EU's trade agreement with Vietnam does include provisions on labour rights.

On paper, the government appears to be adhering to those rights, although it has yet to ratify a convention on the freedom of association.

"When it comes to civil and political rights, it [Vietnam] is just going in the opposite direction," pointed out Francavilla.

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