Vietnam Jails Blogger for Devastating Toxic Spills Reports in 'Clear Sign of Crackdown on Dissidents'

Toxic spills in Vietnam
This picture taken on April 20, 2016 shows a man walking among dead fish lying on a beach in Quang Trach district in the central coastal province of Quang Binh STR/AFP/Getty Images

A Vietnamese blogger has been sentenced to seven years in jail for reporting on toxic spills that devastated Vietnam's coastline in 2016.

Nguyen Van Hoa, 22, was found guilty of spreading anti-state propaganda for producing material on the environmental disaster that fomented anti-government protests.

Hoa's sentence was handed down after the blogger and activist was tried at the People's Court in Ha Tinh province in a trial that took half a day on November 27, the Associated Press reported.

He was also charged with using social media platforms including Facebook to send articles to "reactionary" groups in exile for financial support.

Taiwan-owned steel factory Formosa Steel Corp, located in Ha Tinh, dumped toxins into the ocean last year, killing tons of fish and damaging 200 kilometers (124 miles) of coastline in four provinces across the central part of the country. The incident sparked protests against the company and the local government's perceived slow response.

At the time, the government blamed the factory for what became one of Vietnam's worst environmental disasters, saying the incident had decimated tourism and fishing in the area and hampered investments.

Formosa admitted it was behind the incident and pledged $500m (£375m) for clean-up operations and to compensate affected people.

According to the US-funded Radio Free Asia (RFA), for which Hoa was a regular contributor, the blogger was the "first person to broadcast live footage of protests outside the company's steel plant in Ha Tinh using a flycam drone. Last October, his footage of more than 10,000 peaceful protesters went viral."

RFA said Hoa's hearing was scheduled to take place on November 28, but had been moved unexpectedly to November 27. The trial lasted for two-and-a-half hours.

"The sentencing of young human rights defender Nguyen Van Hoa is another dark day for human rights in Vietnam," Janice Beanland, Campaigner for Amnesty International in Vietnam, told Newsweek.

"The authorities' energies would be much better spent investigating the alleged environmental crimes Nguyen Van Hoa tried to expose, instead of punishing someone for exercising their human rights."

Daniel Bastard from Reporters Without Borders (RSF) condemned the verdict, which it said was "totally disproportionate."

"It was all the more severe because Hoa showed his good faith by accepting all the police recommendations," he said in a statement.

"He did not take a lawyer and signed a confession that was broadcast on state TV in April. Not even his family was warned that this trial was going to take place."

Hoa reportedly went missing from his home in Ha Tinh in January, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). Police later informed the blogger's family he was being held under article 258 of the penal code, which carries a maximum seven-year sentence for "abusing democratic freedoms."

Freedom of speech in Vietnam

 Vietnamese blogger Nguyen Van Hoa
A Vietnamese court on November 27 jailed a blogger for seven years for disseminating anti-state 'propaganda' including articles which supported protests against a Taiwanese firm responsible for a toxic leak. Nguyen Van Hoa, 22, (C) an environmental activist, was accused of instigating protests against authorities via his Facebook account, mainly following the 2016 toxic leak at a steel factory operated by Taiwan's Formosa. VIETNAM NEWS AGENCY/AFP/Getty Images)

Some have argued Hoa's sentence is the latest example of Vietnam's crackdown on dissidents.

"The growing crackdown on freedom of expression in Vietnam is alarming –dozens of other bloggers and peaceful activists have been sentenced to prison for nothing but their writings in recent years," Beanland says.

According to Bastard, Hoa's verdict "confirms the intransigence of Vietnam's refusal to tolerate any reporting freedom. Vietnam's commercial partners should draw the appropriate conclusions."

Human Rights Watch said Vietnamese authorities use vaguely-worded penal code provisions to try dissidents, accused of, among other crimes, "undermining national unity,"; "conducting propaganda against the state"; and "abusing the rights to democracy and freedom to infringe upon the interests of the state."

The organization said at least 19 bloggers were tried and convicted in the first nine of months of 2016, while others were held without trial.

Phil Robertson, Human Rights Watch Asia Deputy Director, warned freedom of speech is deteriorating in the country. He told Newsweek, "After PM Phuc's visit to the White House at which no human rights concerns were raised, Hanoi's leaders are taking advantage of Trump's disregard for human rights and the EU's distracted focus.

"The result has been a growing list of prosecutions and long prison sentences for the many activists and campaigners who have been surveilled and placed on the state's lists, waiting for the right time. Unless the international community rapidly organizes some urgent pushback, there are going to be many more like Nguyen Van Hoa heading to prison over the coming year," he continues.

According to CPJ research, Vietnam consistently ranks among the ten worst "jailers of journalists in the world."