CPJ urges Bush to press for release of Vietnamese journalists

In advance of your June 21 meeting with Vietnamese Prime Minister Phan Van Khai, the Committee to Protect Journalists is writing to call your attention to the imprisonment of Vietnamese writers Pham Hong Son, Nguyen Khac Toan, and Nguyen Vu Binh for their journalistic work.

Your administration has taken strong steps in support of human rights and political freedom in Vietnam. In a visit to Hanoi in May, Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick praised as important steps the Vietnamese government’s commitment to legislative reform on issues of religious freedom, and its recent amnesty of political prisoners. While visiting the region, Zoellick also reiterated the administration’s concerns about press freedom in Vietnam.

The meeting with Prime Minister Khai provides an important opportunity to reinforce your commitment to political rights in the region. We urge you to appeal for the release of three writers who have been unjustly imprisoned for using the Internet to transmit reports, opinions, and information banned in the government-controlled traditional media.

  • Pham Hong Son, a medical doctor, was arrested in March 2002. Prior to his arrest, Son translated into Vietnamese and posted online an essay titled “What Is Democracy?” that had first appeared on the U.S. State Department’s Web site. Son had previously written essays promoting democracy and human rights, which were posted on Vietnamese-language online forums. The government issued a statement calling his work “antistate” and the Hanoi People’s Court in June 2003 sentenced Son to 13 years in prison, plus an additional three years of house arrest. Son’s prison sentence was reduced on appeal to five years. In an August 2004 interview with the U.S.-government funded Radio Free Asia (RFA), Son’s wife Vu Thuy Ha said that he was in very poor health and in need of medical attention. On June 2, 2005, Vu Thuy Ha told RFA: “Let the government release my husband. That one act alone would show the good will of the prime minister and of his government in the direction of improving the human rights situation in Vietnam when he goes to the U.S.”
  • Nguyen Khac Toan was arrested in an Internet café in the capital, Hanoi, in January 2002. He had reported on protests by disgruntled farmers and then transmitted his reports via the Internet to overseas pro-democracy groups. Authorities later charged him with espionage. After a trial that lasted less than one day, Toan was sentenced to 12 years in prison. In March, Toan was allowed to write to his mother after almost a year of being deprived of the right to communicate with his family, according to his letter, in which he called for the aid of international statesmen and the media in protesting his unjust imprisonment.
  • Nguyen Vu Binh was imprisoned in September 2002 after security officials searched his home in Hanoi. Police did not disclose the reasons for his arrest, but CPJ sources believe his detention may be linked to an essay he wrote criticizing border agreements between China and Vietnam. In December 2003, the Hanoi People’s Court sentenced Binh on espionage charges to seven years in prison, followed by three years of house arrest. Binh is a former journalist who worked for almost 10 years at Tap Chi Cong San (Journal of Communism), an official publication of Vietnam’s Communist Party. He left his position there after applying to form an independent opposition party.
    In addition to these three journalists, we are concerned about the status of writer and medical doctor Nguyen Dan Que, who was released from prison in an amnesty announced in late January. Que remains under constant surveillance and faces restrictions on his movements outside his home, and restrictions on his telephone and Internet communication. As a non-profit, non-partisan organization of journalists committed to defending our colleagues worldwide, we urge you to appeal for the immediate and unconditional release of these writers.

    Prime Minister Khai’s June 21 visit to the White House marks the 10-year anniversary of the normalization of diplomatic relations between the United States and Vietnam. Prime Minister Khai will be the highest-ranking Vietnamese official to visit the United States since the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. This occasion marks huge strides in the relationship between the two countries and signifies Vietnam’s impressive economic development in recent years.

    Officials in your administration have voiced the hope that political reform will accompany economic progress in Vietnam. A free press is vital to that reform. Without it, other political rights will remain out of reach. But as the treatment of Son, Toan, and Binh makes clear, the Vietnamese government has yet to allow the free and open exchange of information and ideas within its borders and to the outside world.

    Calling attention to the imprisonment of writers in your meeting with Prime Minister Khai would have a powerful impact in the development of freedom in Vietnam. We believe that doing so will be welcomed by advocates of democracy and human rights in the region as a sign of the U.S. government’s support for these goals.

    Thank you for your attention to these urgent matters. We look forward to your response.


    Ann Cooper
    Executive Director