After reporting on one of the worst spills in Vietnamese history, Nguyen Van Hoa was arrested by authorities and sentenced to seven years in prison, according to the New York Times.
He was found guilty of spreading anti-government propaganda through videos and writings on the spill, according to the Times. His arrest is the latest in a long crackdown on reporters, activists, and government critics, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW).
“The sentencing of Nguyen Van Hoa shows how profoundly the government’s paranoid desire to maintain political control trumps notions of justice and human rights,” Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, told the Times.
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“How else can one explain that executives of an international firm that poisoned the ocean, ruining the coastal economy in four provinces, are free to go about their business while this idealistic young journalist is heading to prison for helping expose their misdeeds?” he added.
The global advocacy group has documented at least 105 peaceful protesters who have received lengthy prison sentences in Vietnam for their activities.
Earlier in the year, a prominent blogger known as “Mother Mushroom” was given a 10-year sentence after reporting on the toxic spill that Hoa also blogged about, according to the Guardian.
HRW argues that the persecution of those who speak out against wrongdoing is potential evidence of far-reaching corruption in a country where only one political party is allowed.
The government has argued that it is merely enforcing laws that prohibit the formation of political groups, labor unions, and human rights organizations. According to HRW, the government regularly harasses, intimidates, and abuses those who step outside tightly controlled bounds of behavior and speech.
The US State Department has condemned the ongoing crackdown on members of the press.
“The United States calls on Vietnam to release Mother Mushroom and all other prisoners of conscience immediately, and to allow all individuals in Vietnam to express their views freely and assemble peacefully without fear of retribution,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauer said during a press briefing earlier in the year.
The latest crackdown on Hoa and Mother Mushroom is especially troublesome, according to Amnesty International, because the toxic spill triggered widespread protests throughout the affected region, meaning public awareness was already high.
In April of 2016, steel plants owned by the Taiwanese company Formosa Plastics released wastewater containing toxic chemicals such as cyanide and carbolic acids along Vietnam’s central coastlines, causing more than 70 tons of dead fish to wash onto shores throughout four provinces, according to the Guardian.
The disaster caused widespread outrage among fishermen, people involved in the tourism industry, and people who care about the environment, the article reports.
“There are no fish or shrimp for fishermen to catch, seafood farming is impossible and the tourism industry has also been affected,” Nguyen Tu Cuong of the Vietnam Fishery Association told the Guardian at the time.
The government ultimately charged Formosa Plastics $500 million for the spill and demanded a public apology.
“Our company takes full responsibility and sincerely apologizes to the Vietnamese people ... for causing the environmental disaster which seriously affected the livelihood, production and jobs of the people and the sea environment,” said the chairman of Formosa Ha Tinh Steel, Chen Yuan-Cheng, in a video apology, the Guardian notes.
Despite the public nature of the conviction and the admission of wrongdoing, the government then moved to suppress reporting relating to the spill, according to Human Rights Watch.
Hoa’s conviction is the latest step in this effort to shut down information, advocacy groups argue.
Global crackdowns on press have been increasing in recent years, according to a report by Reporters Without Borders (RSF). Censorship, fines, jail sentences, and even murders are growing throughout the world, the organization has found.
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The case in Vietnam may be severe, but it’s by no means unique. In China, for instance, censorship means many topics are off-limits. In Turkey 308 journalists have been arrested following a failed coup in June 2016 and throughout the Syrian war, 153 journalists have been killed.
“The rate at which democracies are approaching the tipping point is alarming for all those who understand that, if media freedom is not secure, then none of the other freedoms can be guaranteed,” RSF Secretary-General Christophe Deloire said in a statement. “Where will this downward spiral take us?”