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“I am the victim of a political conspiracy” – Le Quoc Quan

Le Quoc Quan speaks to court during his appeal (Pic. courtesy CPJ)

Hanoi‘s Peoples’ Court of Appeals rejected Monday the appeal of blogger and dissident Le Quoc Quan, 41, against a 30-month jail sentence imposed in October. The sentence for tax evasion also includes a hefty fine of 1.2 billion dong (US$57,000).

Quan who has been on hunger strike protesting prison conditions for the past 17 days briefly fainted during the proceedings, said the Paris-based Reporters without Borders (RWB/RSF). However Quan’s Ha Hui Son lawyer told Voice of America that he had become very tired but did not faint.
The appeals court said after a half-day session that no new evidence had been presented to overturn the lower court’s decision. “The defendant did not show regret and took a disrespectful attitude towards the court,” said court president Nguyen Van Son, confirming the jail term and a fine of around US$ 57000,” said Agence France Presse (AFP).
AFP quoted Quan saying “I am the victim of a political conspiracy. I object to this trial.”
Although he was tried for tax evasion there is widespread conviction that Quan has been imprisoned as punishment for his outspoken blog focusing on official corruption and human rights abuses including religious freedom.
“Today’s appeal court ruling against blogger Le Quoc Quan underscores the severe constraints on judicial independence in Vietnam,” said Shawn Crispin, senior Southeast Asia representative for the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). “It is clear that Quan was imprisoned for his expression of dissenting opinions, not a faulty tax disclosure. We call on Vietnamese authorities to release all imprisoned journalists immediately and unconditionally.”
While Hanoi’s Court of Appeals upholding the 30-month sentence is cause for outrage, of equal concern are prison conditions under which Quan is held as well as his health. On February 2, Quan, who is a devout Catholic, began a hunger strike protesting that he was not given access to legal documents, a copy of the Bible and a Catholic priest. 
“We also sound the alarm about Quan’s state of health. He has been on hunger strike for the past 17 days in protest against the treatment he is receiving, and he briefly lost consciousness during today’s hearing. So we call for his immediate release on humanitarian grounds,” said Benjamin Ismail head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk.
RSF has also drawn attention to the lack of process in the way the appeal was conducted. The organisation said in a statement, “We condemn the way the hearing was conducted. Hundreds of people who had come to support Quan were kept away from the courthouse and only his mother and wife were allowed to attend.”
RSF went on to say that journalists watching proceedings on CCTV in another room could not see Quan’s reaction to the judge’s ruling as the feed was cut off immediately after the order.
Quan was arrested on December 27, 2012 after the BBC published his article criticising a constitutional provision that accorded the Communist Party of Vietnam a preeminent position in the country. Prior to that Quan was arrested in March 2007 when he returned to China after completing a stint as Reagan Fascell Fellow at Washington DC’s National Endowment for Democracy. He was released without charges after being detained for 100 days. He was arrested again in 2011 and released without charges. In August 2012 he was severely injured in an assault.  
Following the failure of the appeal RSF promised, “In the coming days, we will do everything possible to ensure that this blogger’s voice can be heard more easily. We are going to start translating and circulating his articles so that more people can read his criticism of Vietnam’s human rights violations – criticism that the authorities did not want to hear.”

Obama’s Admininstration Most Aggressive Against Whistleblowers In US History

The steep decline in media freedom in the United States is reflected by Reporters without Borders (RSF) in its Press Freedom Index for 2014 by placing the US in position 46 – 13 behind what it occupied last year.
To bringing alive the statistics, partly by relating his own experience and partly by referring what had befallen his colleagues, was James Risen of the New York Times, Risen has been ordered by the Court of Appeals to give evidence in the trial of a whistleblower, Jeffrey Sterling, a CIA agent charged under the Espionage Act for leaking unauthorised information to Risen. 
Risen was speaking at a press conference convened by RSF at the National Press Club in Washington DC on Tuesday to release the 2014 Press Freedom Index. Also on the panel, chaired by Delphine Halgand, RSF’s director in Washington, were Huong Nguyen, a doctoral student at Indiana University’s Maurer School of Law, cofounder of the Viet Youth for Democracy movement and a friend of jailed Vietnamese pro-democracy activist/blogger Nguyen Tien Trung, and Tolga Tanis, Washington correspondent for the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet.

 Risen said the Obama administration was the most aggressive in the history of the US in prosecuting whistleblowers and investigating leaks. “(The administration) wants to limit information on national security and what people know on the war on terror,” he said.
He went on to say that since normal oversight exercised within the bureaucracy such as by inspectors general in the Department of Defence, had “atrophied” and anyone going outside the chain of command to report grievances ran the risk of being targeted.
Halgand was no less critical in her opening remarks, “In the United States, the hunt for leaks and whistleblowers serves as a warning to those thinking of satisfying a public interests need for information about the imperial prerogatives assumed by the world’s leading power. The United Kingdom (position 33) has followed in the US wake, distinguishing itself by its harassment of The Guardian.”
Huong, speaking on press freedom in Vietnam and her friend Trung, said Trung founded Vietnamese Youth for Democracy movement. He was charged for propaganda against the state and has been jailed for seven years and three years probation in 2009. Huong said that part of Vietnam’s punishment of pro-democracy activists was harassing families of activists and Trung’s was not spared.
She also spoke laws deterring freedom of information on the internet and the use of administrative measures to deliberately make life difficult for bloggers to work. Huong said it had resulted in self-censorship.
“Independent news providers are subject to enhanced internet surveillance, draconian directives, waves of arrests and sham trials. Vietnam continues to be the second largest prison for bloggers and netizens,” said RSF.

Speaking about Turkey, Tanis said, “Gezi Park was a turning point. Until Gezi, [Prime Minister Tyyip Erdogan’s] government controlled the media. He said the ruling party was able to achieve this by creating a media supporting it and suppressing those against it.”

However with the confrontation at Gezi Park, where 150 journalists were injured and 39 detained, the media had become bolder and more willing to take on the government. It was because of this evolution that the media was willing to challenge the government on issues of corruption he said. The corruption scandal that broke out last December has resulted in senior members of Erdogan’s government resigning and the regime clamping down further on internet freedom through Law 5651.
“There are number of examples of governments abusing the ‘fight against terrorism.’ In Turkey, (154th) dozens of journalists have been detained on this pretext, above all, those who cover the Kurdish issue,” said Halgand.
 Please click here to read RSF’s Press Freedom Index 2014.

Cyberspace Joins CPJ’s Media Risk List In 2013

Supranational Cyberspace joined the Risk List in 2013, which the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has developed to flag countries where media freedom is in significant decline. Countries that have displayed the most alarming regress in 2013 are: Egypt, Russia, Syria, Vietnam, Turkey, Bangladesh, Liberia, Ecuador, and Zambia.

CPJ said that the decentralised nature of the internet had once provided protection to journalists investigating and reporting controversial issues more than the traditional media. However today, as the documents of NSA contractor Edward Snowden revealed, global surveillance by the United States and its allies was a threat to the work journalists do by compromising privacy of their communication.
CPJ quoted Marietje Schaake, a member of the European Parliament and leader on Internet freedom issues: “‘Countries who seek to gain control over their people through the Internet have their own agendas. They are in search of larger governmental control or even censorship online. We must ensure the NSA-triggered debate does not become a race to the bottom.'”
CPJ said other trends witnessed in 2013 include:
  • Deterioration in several indicators, including fatalities and censorship, in Egypt
  • New legislation to stifle free speech in Ecuador, Liberia, Russia, Vietnam, and Zambia
  • Firings and forced resignations of journalists in Turkey at the government’s behest
  • Targeted violence against journalists in Bangladesh and Russia, and a soaring rate of abductions in Syria
  • Crackdowns on online journalism in Russia, Vietnam, and Bangladesh
Please click hereto read the summary; and herefor the Risk List 2013.


Vietnam: Tale of Two Bloggers

Dinh Nhat Uy (Pic. courtesy RSF)

The power of social media and how repressive governments like Vietnam’s have grown to fear it was evident earlier this week. Blogger Dinh Nhat Uy was given a 15-month suspended sentence – which severely restricts movement – for criticising the government on Facebook, while Nguyen Lan Thang who was taken into custody at Hanoi airport and released a day later, posted the sequence of events, also on Facebook.
Media watchdogs say the real reason for sentencing Uy is because he campaigned for his brother, blogger Dinh Nguyen Kha, imprisoned for four years for anti-government propaganda. They point out that material on which Uy was convicted was four posts written in December 2012, although he was arrested only in June this year as the campaign to release of Kha began to gather momentum.

Uy was indicted under Section 258 of Vietnam’s criminal code for “abusing democratic freedoms against the interests of the state and the legitimate rights and interests of organisations and individuals.” Under the law, he could have been jailed for seven years. Uy’s conviction is the first against a blogger using Facebook.
“A new decree for governing the Internet that came into effect on September 1 restricts the types of content that foreign companies are allowed to host on their Vietnam-related websites or social media platforms,” said, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). It added that there is no information whether Facebook will be held accountable.
The Paris-based Reporters without Borders (RSF) said, referring to Kah, that Uy’s sentence was an example of how family members of jailed dissidents were harassed by the authorities.
RSF also deplored Uy was not granted due process. “Like the denial of defence rights during Kha‘s appeal hearing, today’s presence of 400 plainclothes police in the courtroom to create the illusion of a public hearing and the harassment of Uy’s lawyers, which led one of them, Nguyen Thanh Luong, to withdraw from the case, highlight the bogus nature of these trials, whose outcome is decided in advance.”
Meanwhile, in what appears a mild response to the stiff prison sentences and other privations by which pro-democracy activists are usually punished, Nguyen Lan Thang was released after 24 hours in police custody. He recorded the event on Facebook with an almost lighthearted, “Too much taxpayer’s money has been spent on me since yesterday. My apologies to all of you.”
However, Thang seemed prepared to face arrest and detention at the airport when returning from a meeting with human rights activists abroad. Not only was there a group of activists to receive him, but they posted a message Thanng had recorded before he set out on his return journey to Vietnam.
“‘In a video message posted by activists soon after his detention at the Hanoi airport Wednesday night, Nguyen Lan Thang said, “When you see this video, it’s certain that I have been arrested by security forces,'” reported Associated Press (AP).
Thang’s use of the media to publicise the government’s violations are reminiscent of Ai Weiwei who once used the camera to record and social media to transmit the Chinese government destroying his studio.
AP said that non-violent activists are detained for a day or two but could also be ordered long prison sentences. It quoted Human Rights Watch that up to 61 dissidents had been convicted and handed down prison sentences – many for dissent via the internet – this year which was a significant increase from 40 in 2012.

Southeast Asia: Expanding Economies, But Stifled Media

(Photo courtesy

An article in Global Voices Online reviews briefly media freedom in certain Southeast Asian countries. Titled ‘Dictatorships Are Gone, But Censorship Hangs On,’ it highlights continuing media repression in some countries in the region despite their reputation for rapid economic expansion.
There is a school of thought that expanding economies like in the ASEAN countries with relatively equitable distribution of wealth strengthens the middle classes. The middle class in turn demands political freedom and other fundamental rights. While the economic upturn in the region did fuel this process to some extent, as the author Mong Palatino says, there are certain sectors where the old ways remain. 
“Both off and online, censorship is still enforced in several countries through the use of draconian laws and strict media regulation. Media groups have consistently decried certain controversial laws and regulations as tools of media repression in Vietnam, Thailand, the Philippines, Singapore, and Myanmar,” he writes
Read the article here