Every year, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) grants three Press Freedom Awards for ‘courage’, ‘impact’ and ‘independence’. This year, Pham Doan Trang, a Vietnamese writer and journalist, is the worthy recipient of the award for ‘impact’. According to RSF, her work ‘has led to concrete improvements in journalistic freedom, independence and pluralism, or to an increase in awareness of these matters’. In her speech at the award ceremony, given by video link from Vietnam, Trang referred to George Orwell’s Animal Farm: ‘We have all the human rights guaranteed by the Constitution, but you know, in fact, “all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than the others”.’
Trang has long campaigned for press freedom and democracy in Vietnam and has written extensively on these subjects, despite state censorship and threats to her personal safety. She has pledged to remain in Vietnam, considered by many to be one of the most repressive countries in the world, until it becomes a democracy. Human Rights Watch’s recent annual report states:
Vietnam’s appalling human rights record worsened in 2018 as the government imprisoned dissidents for longer prison terms, sanctioned thugs to attack rights defenders, and passed draconian laws that further threaten freedom of expression. The Communist Party of Vietnam monopolizes power through the government, controls all major political and social organizations, and punishes people who dare to criticize or challenge its rule. Basic civil and political rights including freedom of expression, association, and peaceful public assembly are severely restricted. Independent media is not allowed as the government controls TV, radio, newspapers, and other publications … Police frequently use excessive force to disperse peaceful public protests that criticize the government.
Trang is founder of the online magazine Luat Khoa and a member of the editorial board of The Vietnamese, an independent news website that aims to raise public awareness about human rights and politics in Vietnam. Many of her articles seek to inform her fellow citizens about their civil rights and offer advice as to how they can defend them. Trang recently published Chính Trị bình dân (‘Politics for the Masses’) and has written a book on demands for equal rights for LGBT people in Vietnam. She has been beaten and arbitrarily imprisoned several times for her work. On 16 November 2016, the Vietnamese police detained her after she had attended a meeting with an EU delegation in Hanoi. The police allegedly seized her personal property, including her mobile phone and laptop, and held her incommunicado without access to lawyers. Although she was eventually released, Trang effectively remained under house arrest. She had been speaking to the EU delegation about Vietnam’s human rights situation and the Formosa environmental disaster, a water pollution crisis caused by the illegal dumping by the Formosa Steel Corporation of toxic chemicals into the ocean. The pollution devastated fishing communities and sparked protests. Trang has contributed to a collection of articles, An Overview of the Marine Life Disaster in Vietnam, focusing on the environmental pollution.
On 8 March last year, International Women’s Day, Trang was reportedly taken into custody again and interrogated for nine hours about Chính Trị bình dân. On 15 August 2018, Trang was among four activists attacked by policemen who stormed into a cafe and broke up dissident singer Nguyen Tin’s ‘Memory of Saigon’ show. She was taken by police to a road outside the city and ‘beaten further to the point of disfiguring her face’. Human Rights Watch claims that Trang suffered multiple bruises, nausea and dizziness and was later diagnosed with concussion. Friends who tried to visit her in hospital were harassed and beaten. Despite this intimidation, Trang continues to write. In August this year she released her latest book, Politics of a Police State.
During her acceptance speech, Trang noted that Vietnam is home to nearly a thousand official media outlets but has ‘only one editor-in-chief – the head of the propaganda department of the Communist Party’. While some twenty thousand journalists have been granted press cards, Trang points out, ‘thousands of people have been imprisoned over the past two decades just because they spoke their mind’.
Update: On 7 September 2019, prominent Ukrainian writer and filmmaker Oleg Sentsov (LR, June 2017, September 2018) was freed as part of a prisoner exchange between Russia and Ukraine. This is the first exchange since Russia’s illegal occupation and annexation of Crimea in March 2014. Among the others returned to Ukraine were the Ukrainian activist Olexandr Kolchenko, sentenced to ten years in prison alongside Sentsov, the journalists Roman Sushchenko and Stanislav Klykh, and the twenty-four Ukrainian sailors captured by Russia last year.
Sentsov was a vocal critic of Russia’s occupation and annexation of Crimea. In August 2015, after a grossly unfair trial marred by allegations of torture, he was sentenced to twenty years in prison on spurious terrorism charges. Andrei Kurkov, president of PEN Ukraine, commented: ‘Many did not believe that this was possible under the current Russian government, but finally Oleg and thirty-four other Ukrainians have been released from Russian prisons and are home … The freeing of Oleg Sentsov should give us more hope, strength and perseverance.’
PEN and other organisations continue to call on the Russian authorities to return all Ukrainian nationals arrested in Crimea and held in Russia, and to free all those held in violation of their right to freedom of expression.