A group of human rights and internet security organizations marked World Press Freedom Day on Wednesday by calling on Vietnam to free detained citizen journalist Nguyen Van Hoa, held since January on charges of disseminating “anti-state propaganda.”
In a statement signed by Paris-based Reporters Sans Frontieres and Washington-based Electronic Frontier Foundation, among others, the organizations demanded that authorities “immediately release” Hoa, an activist known for filming protests against a polluting steel plant.
“With mounting social and environmental challenges, the government of Vietnam should welcome transparency and peaceful dialogue,” the statement said.
“Repressing citizen journalists is not only a violation of human rights but also a major impediment to Vietnam’s aspirations to become a tech and innovation hub.”
Hoa, 22, who is also a digital security trainer and regular contributor to RFA, was the first person to broadcast live footage of protests outside Taiwan-owned Formosa’s steel plant located at the deep-water port in Ha Tinh province using a flycam drone. Last October, his footage of more than 10,000 peaceful protesters went viral.
Formosa has acknowledged that its steel plant caused a toxic waste spill last year that killed an estimated 115 tons of fish and left fishermen jobless in four coastal provinces. The company pledged U.S. $500 million to clean up and compensate people affected by the spill, but the government has faced protests over the amount of the settlement and the slow pace of payouts.
Police arrested Hoa on Jan. 11 amid detentions of several activists in advance of the Tet holiday and initially accused him of “abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the State” under Article 258, before changing the charges to “anti-state propaganda” under Article 88.
Authorities in Vietnam recently released a video of Hoa “apologizing” for his reporting of the Formosa protests, in what is seen as an attempt to dissuade the public from taking part in peaceful activism and citizen journalism.
Wednesday’s statement noted that Hoa’s detention comes as the Vietnamese government launches a crackdown against citizen journalists, online activists and human rights defenders. Two bloggers, Nguyen Van Oai and Tran Thi Nga, were detained within days of Hoa’s arrest.
According to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, Vietnam held at least eight reporters behind bars as of Dec. 1, 2016, when the organization last conducted its annual global census of jailed journalists.
The Southeast Asian nation has consistently ranked among the 10 worst jailers of journalists in the world, the group said.