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Vietnam arrests prominent journalist for Facebook posts

Authorities in Vietnam have arrested one of the country's most prominent journalists, accusing him of “abusing democratic freedoms” by publishing articles on Facebook that “violate the interests of the state and the legitimate rights and interests of organizations and individuals.”

Journalist Truong Huy San – known to many by his pseudonym Huy Duc – was taken into custody last week, according to a well-known Vietnamese blogger. However, official confirmation was not made until Friday evening, when state news media reported that the Ministry of Public Security was investigating Mr San over his Facebook posts. It did not provide details about the content of the posts.

The arrest is a grim sign for other writers in Vietnam. Journalists have long been a target of the country's ruling Communist Party, which often suppresses dissent. Yet for years San managed to navigate the very small space for independent thought, often publishing articles critical of the government. His connections to senior officials were seen as a buffer – until now.

San's case is part of a broader crackdown on civil society that many human rights groups say has grown in scope and scale in recent years. The law he is alleged to have violated is “overbroad” and is frequently used by authorities against government critics, Human Rights Watch said.

“Huy Duc is Vietnam's most influential journalist,” said Ben Swanton, director of the 88 Project, a U.S.-based nonprofit that focuses on human rights issues in Vietnam. “His arrest represents an alarming attack on press freedom and is the latest step in an ongoing crackdown on reformers.”

Reporters Without Borders, the Committee to Protect Journalists and PEN America called on the government to release Mr. San.

Vietnamese state media reported on Mr San's case and the arrest of lawyer Tran Dinh Trien, who was accused of the same offence as Mr San. Mr Trien, a former deputy director of the Hanoi Bar Association, has represented many clients in high-profile legal cases. He was also arrested for articles he posted on Facebook.

After San, 62, disappeared on June 1, his Facebook account with over 350,000 followers was deactivated and his posts removed.

Screenshots saved by the 88 Project show that on May 26, Mr San took aim at the police on Facebook with the headline: “A COUNTRY CANNOT DEVELOP ON THE BASIS OF FEAR.” He criticized the concentration of power in the Ministry of Public Security, last headed by newly appointed President To Lam.

On May 28, Mr. San published an article criticizing the anti-corruption crackdown launched by Vietnam's powerful Communist Party leader Nguyen Phu Trong. Mr. San wrote that the fight against corruption must be done institutionally, not by “eliminating” several corrupt high-ranking officials.

In 2016, Trong said his “blazing flame” of anti-corruption campaign would root out “bad roots” and purify the party. However, that campaign also rocked Vietnam with an unusually high number of resignations of senior politicians.

If Mr Trong “does not put forward a political plan to make the country more democratic, his cleanliness is meaningless,” Mr San wrote in his May 28 post.

Mr. San received a Hubert H. Humphrey Fellowship to study at the University of Maryland from 2005 to 2006. When he returned to Vietnam in 2006, he started a popular blog that published social and political commentary. Vietnamese authorities shut down the blog in 2010.

In 2012, Mr. San spent a year at Harvard University on a Nieman Fellowship, where he wrote a journalistic account of Vietnam's postwar period, entitled “The Winning Side.” Banned in Vietnam, the book is widely regarded as the definitive account of Vietnam's postwar history and politics.

According to the 2024 World Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders, Vietnam ranks 174th out of 180 countries and territories.

The country has the “fifth largest prison population in the world” for holding journalists. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, at least 19 reporters were incarcerated in December.