The Vietnamese government is censoring its own media and putting an American citizen on trial as it struggles to respond to the aftermath of last month’s nationwide demonstrations.
The decision on Tuesday to suspend the online edition of the state controlled Tuoi Tre newspaper highlights official alarm and confusion over the scale of the protests.
Tens of thousands of people took to the streets of Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City and other major cities on June 10 and 11 to protest against controversial new laws on economic zones and cyber security.
Tuoi Tre, founded by the Communist Youth Union and a leading organ of state media, was accused of publishing untrue and nationally divisive information.
The offending article had said that President Tran Dai Quang was in favour of passing a law on demonstrations and would recommend it to the National Assembly.
Subversives and counter-revolutionaries
The inner workings of the leadership are a taboo subject in Vietnam, where party and state institutions attempt to project a unified face to the public even at times of severe infighting.
There is currently no law on demonstrations in Vietnam. Activists claim the right to protest against government policy is guaranteed by the constitution. The government treats demonstrators as potential subversives and counter-revolutionaries.
The suggestion that President Quang could be advocating a more liberal approach, at a time when hardliners around the party’s General-Secretary, Nguyen Phu Trong, are intent on crushing all opposition, points to a potential rift at the top level of leadership.
Tuoi Tre is now paying the price for attempting to report politics in Vietnam. It was forced to apologise to its readers, pay a fine and suspend publication of the online edition for three months.
Dragged away by police
Hundreds of people were arrested during the protests.
The government’s decision to go ahead with the high profile trial of an American citizen, William Anh Nguyen, on Friday sends a warning signal to Vietnamese activists and their sympathisers overseas.
He faces a potential seven year prison term on a charge of disrupting public order.
Video footage showed Nguyen in the heart of the demonstration in Ho Chi Minh City on June 10 and later being dragged away with a bloody face by plainclothes police.
“William Anh Nguyen and others face unfair trials and long sentences before Communist Party-controlled courts for exercising their rights to peaceful assembly and expression,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch.
He condemned the Vietnamese authorities for forcing Nguyen to make a forced “confession” and apology that was broadcast on state television.
Nguyen may yet receive lenient treatment, but the decision to continue the trial despite an appeal from the American Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, again shows the determination of the leadership not to be swayed by outside pressure.