No Trade Without Freedom of Information

Sunnylands summit: Hanoi officials must commit to improve freedom of information in exchange for trade agreement. 

President Obama is set to host the leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Sunnylands, California February 15 and 16. Many countries in attendance, including Vietnam, have signed the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) on February 4. Now that the TPP is sure to be a hot topic at the summit, President Obama must take this opportunity to make clear that the agreement's implementation cannot be successful without serious human rights improvements in the region. 

Among the leaders of the 10 ASEAN member countries expected to attend the summit is Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung. The government of Vietnam's freedom of information record is dismal. Hanoi is one of the worst jailers of bloggers and citizen journalists in the world, with at least 15 bloggers currently in prison. The country is ranked 175 out of 180 in Reporters Without Borders (RSF)'s press freedom index, scoring just one point higher than China, and only two points higher than Syria. 

On December 16, human rights lawyer and blogger Nguyen Van Dai was arbitrarily arrested for "conducting propaganda against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam." He was detained just one day after the European Union and Vietnam held their annual dialogue on Human Rights. Ten days prior, he was severely beaten by plainclothes policemen shortly after participating in a discussion about human rights and Vietnam's 2013 Constitution.

Before his arrest in December, Nguyen Van Dai told us that the attacks would not discourage him. He called on "international NGOs and democratic governments to do anything they can to stop the violence that the Vietnamese police have increasingly used in recent years against human rights activists and independent news providers." 

A respected defender of human rights and freedom of information, Nguyen Van Dai was the most prominent Vietnamese activist to speak out in favor of the TPP. He argued that the TPP would compel Hanoi to respect international standards and ultimately lead to greater political openness. His harassment and subsequent arrest show that Vietnamese authorities are cracking down on even moderate voices of dissent advocating for basic rights for the Vietnamese people. 

While Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Tom Malinowski has welcomed the release of several prisoners of conscience since TPP negotiations began over two years ago, it is clear that Vietnam is not as pretty a picture as some US officials are painting. While traditional arrests, trials and convictions of bloggers and citizen journalists may be in general decline, there has been a serious uptick in violent beatings by the authorities and the thugs they employ. In November 2014, French consul Emmanuel Ly Batallan was assaulted by gangsters and plain-clothes police when he tried to assist Pham Minh Hoang, a franco-Vietnamese blogger placed under house-arrest in November 2011 and the subject of harassment ever since. In addition to physical violence, the Vietnamese government has increasingly used online trolls to post negative propaganda about cyber activists on facebook and report activists' accounts in order to shut them down. 

What can the US do on this issue? The answer is a great deal. Last November during an interview with the New York Times, Malinowski declared that the TPP was "the best opportunity we've had in years to encourage deep institutional reform in Vietnam that will advance human rights." Ensuring that Hanoi follows through on its commitments--to deliver meaningful human rights reform and greater access to information before the TPP can go into effect--is key. The US administration must compel Hanoi to put this agreement into place every chance it gets. The ASEAN summit is of course no exception.  We urge President Obama to request the Vietnamese authorities to release all bloggers in prison and to stop harassing cyber activists and dissidents through police beatings and online trolling. No trade is possible without freedom of information.

Christophe Deloire and Duy Hoang, US-based leader of Viet Tan, a Vietnamese pro-democracy organization.