Obama must urge free press during meeting with Vietnam

July 24, 2013

His Excellency Barack Obama
President of the United States of America
White House

Via facsimile: +1 202-456-2461

Dear President Obama:

We are writing to express our concern about the deteriorating press and Internet freedom situation in Vietnam ahead of your Thursday meeting with Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang. We ask that in your discussions you insist on the progress of freedom of expression-related issues as a precondition for broadening Vietnam’s diplomatic, economic, and strategic relations with the United States.

Since 2009, President Sang’s Communist Party-dominated government has presided over a campaign of harassment and intimidation that has specifically targeted the country’s few independent online journalists and bloggers. All but one of the 14 journalists held in Vietnamese prison worked predominantly online, according to CPJ’s 2012 prison census. Vietnam is currently Asia’s second worst jailer of the press, behind only China, CPJ research shows.

Among the wrongfully detained is blogger Nguyen Van Hai, also known as Dieu Cay, who is serving a 12-year term in jail and five years of house arrest, a term that was handed down last year for violating a vague law in the penal code that bars “conducting propaganda” against the state. Hai was first imprisoned in 2008 after establishing an unsanctioned “Free Journalists Club” and publishing online critical commentaries on Communist rule and the government’s bilateral relations with China.

Hai has waged a hunger strike for the past month in prison to protest a confession that prison officials forced him to sign that was used to convict him for the anti-state offenses. He was held in solitary confinement for three months for his refusal to sign, news reports said. Hai’s family members have told the foreign press that his health has deteriorated to such a degree that they could not recognize him during a recent prison visit.

The crackdown has intensified this year, with at least three more bloggers arrested and detained on anti-state charges related to their critical online commentaries. Other bloggers have faced unconscionable forms of harassment: Independent blogger Le Anh Hung was held against his will for several days in January in a psychiatric institution; blogger Nguyen Haong Vi was sexually assaulted in police custody in Ho Chi Minh City in December and published a disturbing account of the attack online.

CPJ commends your earlier call on Vietnam’s leaders to release Hai and all of the political prisoners currently held behind bars. But we regret that your personal calls, as well as your government’s ongoing human rights dialogue with Vietnam, have so far failed to produce any tangible improvements in the country’s press freedom and human rights record.

We believe that future diplomatic, economic, and strategic relations with Vietnam should be predicated on a greater commitment to political openness and demonstrable progress on press freedom conditions. President Sang’s visit to the White House is an opportune time to underscore the importance that your government attaches to press freedom and to signal a new willingness to withhold benefits and downgrade ties without a change of direction in Hanoi.


Joel Simon
Executive Director