The rippling waves of damage done by one of Vietnam’s worst environmental disasters in history continues to claim its victims as a 22-year-old blogger who initially reported on the Formosa factory spill back in 2016 has received a seven-year prison sentence for a charge of “conducting propaganda against the state”.
Nguyen Van Hoa was found guilty on Monday of spreading anti-state propaganda. The People’s Court of Ha Tinh Province said in a statement on their website that the young activist and blogger, who has previously reported for Radio Free Asia, had used video and written content as a call to arms to incite the people of Vietnam in what came to be an unprecedented show of protest following the spill.
The Taiwanese-run factory, owned by the Formosa Ha Tinh Steel Corporation, devastated nearly 200km of Vietnam’s coast in April 2016 after a spill of the factory’s toxic waste was found to be releasing cyanide and other harmful chemicals into the environment.
Reports found that 150 tons of aquatic life died as a result of the spill, which led to fishermen and people working within the tourism industry to be deprived of a livelihood for months. There have also been reports of people residing within the area getting sick from illnesses thought to be caused by the toxins released.
This disaster sparked a rarely seen wave of protests in a communist country that has, in recent months, been tightening up on the measures they use to punish critics of the government.
Bloggers, such as Hoa, are just one of many who have come to be victims of the government’s crackdown, which has begun reaching past traditional media outlets and into the realm of social media where critics, specifically bloggers, have been flocking to voice their opposition against the government.
In June, Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, otherwise known to her Vietnamese-blogging followers as ‘Mother Mushroom’, was sentenced to ten years in prison under a similar charge of blogging about the environmental damage.
In a quote to the New York Times, Phil Robertson, the director of the Asia division at Human Rights Watch, said that this verdict for Hoa clearly shows “how profoundly the government’s paranoid desire to maintain political controls trumps notions of justice and human rights”.
“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 Formosa spill has proven to be a delicate issue for the Vietnamese government, more specifically because it concerns one of the main drivers of their economy – foreign investment – and also because it must balance these interests with environmental regulation and the overall politically stability of the country.
For this reason, the government has been criticised by the international community for what they view as giving a lighter sentence to the company responsible for the spill. Formosa was ordered by the Vietnamese government to pay $500m for the damage done and on their end face no jail time.
Despite the criticism, the government shows no sign in backing down on critics. They have said they will continue to prosecute demonstrators who were in attendance at the protests back in 2016, saying they will be charged with “causing public disorder”.
Reporters Without Borders gave a statement from their Asia-Pacific desk, saying that the ruling was “totally disproportionate”.
“Not even his family was warned that this trial was going to take place. Such drastic action confirms the intransigence of Vietnam’s refusal to tolerate any reporting freedom. Vietnam’s commercial partners should draw the appropriate conclusions,” said Daniel Bastard, the Asia-Pacific representative.
Amnesty International currently ranks Vietnam as standing 175th out of 180 countries in their Freedom of the Press Index, using the fact that there are currently 84 prisoners in Vietnam who have been sentenced under charges of holding political or religious views that are against the state as part of their evidence.