Staring down a nine-year prison term for daring to challenge the Vietnamese government through her writings, Pham Doan Trang epitomizes the relentless struggle of many writers and activists for free expression in Vietnam. The author, publisher, journalist, and activist has shown unwavering defiance in the face of oppression. After years of harassment from authorities and before the last arrest that resulted in her trial and sentencing, she wrote a letter to fellow activists and friends to be released in the event that occurred, asking them to use her case as a catalyst for advocacy for democracy and human rights in Vietnam: “I don’t want freedom for just myself; that’s too easy,” she wrote. “I want something greater: freedom for Vietnam. It might seem like some grand goal, but it’s totally possible — with your support.”

Trang is the 2024 recipient of the PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award, given each year by PEN America (my organization) to a jailed writer of conscience.

Pham Doan Trang is shown in portrait with a guitar.

Vietnamese author, publisher, journalist, and activist Pham Doan Trang, the 2024 recipient of the PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award, given each year by PEN America. (Photo by Thinh Nguyen/Courtesy PEN America)

Her lawyer, Dang Dinh Manh, who fled Vietnam and now lives in the United States, and Trang’s friend and co-founder of the non-profit organization Legal Initiatives for Vietnam, Quynh-Vi Tran, now living in Taiwan, accepted the award on her behalf at PEN America’s literary gala in New York last night. Last year’s recipient was imprisoned Iranian human rights activist Narges Mohammadi, who went on to receive the 2023 Nobel Peace Prize.

Vietnam has been ruled by a one-party state since 1975. Human rights organizations report a precipitous decline in the human rights situation in Vietnam, including arbitrary arrests and prosecution for speech critical of the government. In a 2023 submission to the United Nations Human Rights Council, Human Rights Watch concluded that “the government’s laws, policies and practices systematically violate the rights of the Vietnamese people.” 

The Vietnamese government, in an effort to maintain its power, severely restricts free expression. It controls both traditional and online media through a combination of strict legal regulations, state ownership and influence, surveillance and intimidation of journalists, and tight control over online platforms and content. The Vietnamese government uses the 2015 Penal Code to jail writers and dissidents under the guise of “anti-state propaganda” and “abuse of democratic freedoms,” while also exerting control over books and magazines through the Law on Publishing, which prohibits publishing “propaganda against the state.”

As writers and dissidents turn to online blogs and social media platforms to speak out about injustices, Vietnamese authorities have likewise shifted focus to online censorship and surveillance using pro-government digital militias. In 2015, Vietnam created a 10,000-member cyber military force called Force 47 to monitor and suppress digital free expression, primarily on platforms like Facebook and YouTube. Over time, this force expanded to include a citizen-led affiliate group called E47 and used tactics such as doxxing and mass reporting pages on Facebook to exploit the platform’s challenging appeals process and lack of Vietnamese-language specialists for assistance. Vietnam’s 2018 Cybersecurity Law and corresponding decrees force companies to store user data locally and hand it over to authorities on demand, further imperiling dissidents.  

Third-Leading Jailer of Writers

Vietnam ties with Saudi Arabia as the third-leading jailer of writers worldwide in PEN America’s latest Freedom to Write Index of persecuted writers, following China and Iran. Trang is one of at least 19 writers imprisoned there. Her writings range from books on democracy and human rights to investigative journalism and online blog posts. She wrote satirical commentary on her online blog Trang the Ridiculous,” started in 2006 to cover diverse subjects including the environment, corruption, geopolitics, democracy, and human rights. As the founder and editor of the online magazines Luat Khoa and The Vietnamese, she established avenues for independent journalism and civic participation, challenging the hegemony of government-controlled media. 

Trang’s publications are often censored and suppressed through the denial of publishing permits or by being reported on social media platforms. However, they continue to report on events that the Vietnamese government has tried to censor. That includes the Dong Tam incident, a violent government attack on Dong Tam village on Jan. 9, 2020 amidst a longstanding land dispute, which resulted in casualties including the village leader and police officers. The incident was followed by a trial in September 2020 where villagers received severe sentences, raising significant concerns about police brutality, abuse of power, and contradictions surrounding land ownership in Vietnam. Trang co-authored an independent report on the  Dong Tam rincident, and her subsequent Facebook post sparked conversations and thousands of reactions.

Trang’s activism came at a high cost. Vietnamese authorities have harassed, detained, and assaulted her throughout her career. Fear of escalating harassment and detention prompted her to move from place to place. At one point, she wrote on her blog:

“Working as an independent journalist and author under a totalitarian regime means that you can be arrested and interrogated, even assaulted, at any time without any way to protect yourself and unable to freely move around the country…. You certainly won’t die, because they have no intention of killing you. But you can no longer live normally like other people or like you had before. Misery, depression, and mental breakdowns will all pile on to wreak havoc and slowly kill you.”

In 2009, she was detained for nine days for advocating against the establishment of bauxite mines; activists discovered that the Vietnamese government planned to exploit the reserves with the help of a state-owned Chinese company. She was detained again after she joined an anti-China protest in 2012. This detention was pivotal in her rise to prominence as a human rights activist, as it effectively ended her time as a journalist at government-controlled media that dominate the information landscape in Vietnam, and Trang then became more vocal through independent media. 

Detained for questioning again in January 2015 because of her work translating for families of death row inmates, Trang was later arrested and police raided her home, confiscated materials, and doxxed her by releasing private information taken from her computer. Trang was assaulted during an environmental protest in April 2015. Another police assault, this time during a concert, left Trang with a permanent leg injury; authorities apparently believed Trang planned to distribute copies of her book during the concert. 

Amid these arrests, assaults, and other harassment by authorities, Trang continued writing and speaking out about environmental disasters, cybersecurity laws, and other human rights violations. Finally, under the cover of darkness on Oct. 6, 2020, police in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) raided Trang’s home again and arrested her. This time, she was put on trial on the spurious charge of “anti-state propaganda.” The trial was neither independent nor impartial. Trang was also denied access to legal representation for more than a year leading up to the trial, and during the trial Trang’s lawyers faced restrictions on presenting evidence and conducting cross examinations in her defense. 

Sentencing, Appeal and a Move to a Remote Prison

Despite international calls for justice from civil society, governments, and the U.N.’s independent experts, as well as widespread condemnation of the government’s actions, Trang was unjustly sentenced in December 2021 to a nine-year prison term – two years longer than the prosecutor requested – for writing about marine life disaster, human rights, and freedom of religion in Vietnam, as well as sitting for two interviews with BBC and Radio Free Asia. 

After a court rejected her appeal in August 2022, Trang was transferred to An Phuoc Prison in Vietnam’s southern Binh Duong Province, a remote facility almost 1,600 km (994 miles) from her family in Hanoi, making it difficult for her 84-year-old mother to visit. Trang’s health has declined during her detention, given longstanding damage to her knees from police brutality and having contracted COVID-19 while imprisoned. Yet, prison authorities have denied her access to medical treatment –– a practice authorities have used frequently against other imprisoned writers and dissidents

Free expression is a human right, not a crime. Trang and other unjustly imprisoned writers, journalists, and dissidents should be immediately released from prison, and Vietnam’s government should firmly protect free expression through legislation. 

Furthermore, Vietnam’s vital trade partners such as the U.S. government must prioritize and firmly incorporate human rights principles into their trade negotiations. In 2023, Vietnam and the United States. elevated their relations to a comprehensive strategic partnership. While the joint statement by the countries includes the “promotion and protection of human rights,” it’s imperative for concrete mechanisms to be established within trade negotiations to ensure that the practical implementation and enforcement of these principles includes free expression, especially if the U.S. upgrades the non-market economy status of Vietnam. 

For the international community to effectively advocate for human rights and free expression in Vietnam will require a collaborative approach involving diplomatic engagement, robust support for civil society groups, and concerted public efforts to shed light on violations and push for meaningful change. Upholding human rights is crucial for fostering a future in Vietnam grounded in freedom, dignity, and equality, where creativity can thrive and resistance against abuses of power can flourish.

IMAGE: Activists chant anti-China slogans during a rally in Hanoi on March 14, 2016, to mark the anniversary of a 1988 battle in the Spratly Islands, a rare act of protest over an issue that has come to dog relations between Hanoi and Beijing. (HOANG DINH NAM/AFP via Getty Images)