May 19, 2016
President Barack Obama
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20500
Via facsimile: +1 202-456-2461
Dear Mr. President:
We write in advance of your May 23-25 visit to Vietnam to express our enduring concern about the country's chronically poor press freedom conditions. While your government has strengthened ties with Vietnam without demonstrable progress on human rights, we ask that you use the upcoming meetings with Vietnam's newly appointed leaders to emphasize that closer diplomatic and economic relations with the United States must come with greater respect for press freedom in Vietnam.
Vietnam's Communist Party-run government strictly bans private ownership of news media, making the country one of the most censored in the world, according to CPJ research. Independent bloggers and online journalists who have challenged those restrictions by posting stories about sensitive topics online have faced persecution through street-level attacks, arrest, intrusive surveillance and prison sentences. Six journalists, all of whom were sentenced on anti-state charges for their critical news reporting, were imprisoned in Vietnam on December 1, 2015, when CPJ conducted its annual census of journalists imprisoned worldwide. Three bloggers were handed harsh prison sentences in March this year for "abusing democratic freedoms" or "propagandizing against the state."
Those held behind bars suffer inhumane treatment. Tran Huynh Duy Thuc, who is now serving a 16-year jail term for publishing news on the Internet that a court ruled "aimed at overthrowing the government," claims to have been tortured in detention. His personal blog, Tran Dong Chan, which translates into English as "change we need," focused on local issues of inequality, social ills and the risk of a possible socioeconomic crisis. One of the articles cited in his court indictment was entitled "Obama, China, and Vietnam," which analyzed divergent approaches to civil liberties and human rights in the United States, China, and Vietnam.
Thuc has declined repeated government offers of early release on the condition that he immediately go into exile in the United States, saying he will accept only unconditional freedom. On May 5, Thuc was transferred from a prison situated near his family in southern Ho Chi Minh City to one of the country's harshest and most remote detention facilities, known as Camp 6, in northern Nghe An province. The British Broadcasting Corporation reported he was transferred in handcuffs and with his mouth taped shut. According to the same BBC report, he told his family before his transfer that he would stage a hunger strike to coincide with your visit.
CPJ has commended your earlier calls to release bloggers and journalists wrongfully held behind bars in Vietnam. Those calls were instrumental in the early conditional release of prominent imprisoned bloggers Nguyen Van Hai and Ta Phong Tan, both of whom now live in exile in the United States. We believe the unconditional release of all jailed journalists and the abolishment of anti-state laws and provisions used to censor, harass, and persecute independent journalists is achievable with sustained pressure from the United States. We also believe any decision to reward Vietnam, including through the lifting of the embargo on lethal arms in place because of the regime's poor rights record, would be premature in light of ongoing abuses against the press.
CPJ has long advocated that future diplomatic, economic, and strategic relations with Vietnam be predicated on a genuine commitment to political openness and press freedom. As the United States and Vietnam draw closer together through the "comprehensive partnership" launched in 2013 and through Vietnam's agreement to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership multilateral trade pact, you possess considerable leverage to press for democratic change in Vietnam. Your upcoming visit to Vietnam would be an opportune time to stress the importance your government attaches to press freedom in countries the U.S. holds as partners and allies.
Secretary of State John Kerry
Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter
Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Richard Stengel
Assistant Secretary of State Tom Malinowski, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
Department of State Spokesperson John Kirby
Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs Nisha Desai Biswal
Senator Bob Corker, Chairman, Senate Committee on Foreign Relations
Senator Ben Cardin, Ranking Member, Senate Committee on Foreign Relations
Representative Ed Royce, Chairman, House Committee on Foreign Affairs
Representative Eliot Engel, Ranking Member, House Committee on Foreign Affairs
Representative Joseph Pitts, Co-Chair, Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission
Representative James McGovern, Co-Chair, Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission