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Reporting carries high costs for RFA journalists in authoritarian Asian countries

To mark the 30th anniversary of the UN General Assembly’s proclamation of World Press Freedom Day on May 3, 1993, Radio Free Asia is highlighting the plight of its journalists and bloggers who have been jailed or detained in several of the Asia-Pacific region’s authoritarian states.

This year’s theme, “Freedom of expression as a driver for all other human rights,”  highlights the relationship between threats to media freedom, journalist safety, and increasing attacks on other key human rights.

The concerns are valid, as the jailing of RFA reporters and bloggers, and their BBC and Voice of America colleagues, occurred in countries and territories that have experienced a decline in broader freedoms–if they had such liberties to begin with.


Edmund Wan

Edmund Wan Yiu-sing, known by his DJ name “Giggs,” was sentenced by a court in Hong Kong in October 2022 to two years and eight months in prison for sedition and money laundering, charges he confessed to in a plea deal.

Prior to his February 2021 arrest, he hosted programs that reported and commented on Hong Kong and Chinese politics for D100, an independent online radio station. Wan also hosted a program for Radio Free Asia’s Cantonese Service from 2017 to 2020.

Authorities charged that Wan hosted programs that “incited others to resist or overthrow the Chinese Communist Party” and “promoted Hong Kong independence,” the Hong Kong Free Press independent news outlet reported.

Wan had pleaded guilty to one charge of seditious intent for on-air comments he made in 2020, and three charges of money laundering related to crowd funding transactions. In exchange, six other charges were left on file, which means they cannot be pursued without the court’s permission.

The charges come under a law, created when Hong Kong was under British rule, that defines sedition as “intent to arouse hatred or contempt of the Hong Kong [government] or to incite rebellion, and cause dissatisfaction with it.”

The sedition law was revived by the Hong Kong government during the 2019 protest movement and has been used to arrest pro-democracy activists.
In addition to the time in prison, the court also ordered Wan to hand over HK$4.87 million (about U.S. $620,000) in assets.


Yeang Sothearin

Former Radio Free Asia Khmer news anchor Yeang Sothearin was taken into custody in November 2017, along with Uon Chhin, an RFA photographer and videographer.

They were charged with “illegally collecting information for a foreign source” after RFA closed its bureau in the capital of Phnom Penh in September of that year amid a government crackdown on independent media.

They were slapped with additional charges for illegally produced pornography in March 2018. If convicted of the first charge, they could face a jail term of between seven and 15 years.

Yeang Sothearin and Uon Chhin are out on bail, but they remain in legal limbo after several courts have rejected a series of appeals.

In October 2022, Cambodia’s Supreme Court returned Yeang Sothearin’s passport, allowing him to visit his ailing father and sister in Vietnam.

Cambodia ranks 140 out of 180 in the 2022 Reporters without Borders (RSF) World Press Freedom Index, between Equatorial Guinea and Libya.

After Cambodia’s emergence from decades of warfare in the 1990s, the country’s press had “flourished until the long-serving Prime Minister Hun Sen launched a ruthless war against independent journalism before the 2018 elections,” RSF said.


Uon Chhin

Former Radio Free Asia Khmer photographer and videographer Uon Chhin and RFA news anchor Yeang Sothearin were taken into custody in November 2017, amid a gathering crackdown on independent media by long-ruling Prime Minister Hun Sen.

The pair were charged with “illegally collecting information for a foreign source” after RFA closed its bureau in the capital of Phnom Penh in September of that year.

They were slapped with additional charges for illegally produced pornography in March 2018. If convicted of the first charge, they could face a jail term of between seven and 15 years.

Yeang Sothearin and Uon Chhin are out on bail, but they remain in legal limbo and their media careers frozen after several courts have rejected a series of appeals.

Cambodia ranks 140 out of 180 in the 2022 Reporters without Borders (RSF) World Press Freedom Index, between Equatorial Guinea and Libya.

“Hun Sen went after the press mercilessly ahead of parliamentary elections in July 2018. Radio stations and newspapers were silenced, newsrooms purged, journalists prosecuted – leaving the independent media sector devastated,” said RSF.  “Since then, the few attempts to bring independent journalism back to life have drawn the wrath of ruling circles.”


Htet Htet Khine

Htet Htet Khine, a former BBC television presenter, was sentenced in September 2022 to three years in prison with hard labor for “incitement” and “illegal association” for her reporting work.

The face of BBC Media Action’s national television peace program Khan Sar Kyi (Feel It) from 2016 to 2020, which documented the impact of war on Myanmar society, the freelance journalist and video producer had been in detention in Yangon’s notorious Insein Prison awaiting trial since Aug. 15, 2021, when she was arrested with fellow reporter Sithu Aung Myint.

Htet Htet Khine was arrested six months after the Feb. 1, 2021 military coup by junta security forces, one of some 150 journalists detained by junta authorities.

Family members expressed concern over Htet Htet Khine’s well-being in prison amid the COVID-19 pandemic and the prospect of physical abuse by jailers.

Veteran journalists told Radio Free Asia that her case underscored the fact that reporters face serious personal risk to carry out their work under military rule in Myanmar.


Sithu Aung Myint

A special court in Yangon’s Insein Prison in December 2022 sentenced veteran journalist Sithu Aung Myint to seven years in prison, which came on top of two earlier sentences totaling five years for allegedly inciting sedition in the army, meaning he will have to spend 12 years in prison.

The sentence by a court set up by the junta that took power in a Feb. 1, 2021, military coup was for attempting to incite hatred or contempt against military personnel or civil servants, a crime which carries a maximum 20-year term.

Sithu Aung Myint had written critically of the current junta – as he had since the 1988 People Uprising, a series of nationwide protests against military rule in a country that has been run by the army for most of the 76 years since independence from Britain.

Sithu Aung Myint was arrested in August 2021 at an apartment in Yangon, where he was in hiding along with former BBC television presenter and freelance journalist Htet Htet Khine, who is serving a six-year prison term.

He wrote and presented reports for the Democratic Voice of Burma in the late 2000s and later worked as editor-in-chief of Skynet Up to Date news, and was writing and presenting reviews as a columnist for Voice of America’s Burmese Service up to the time of his arrest.

After the coup, global media watchdog Reporters without Borders dropped Myanmar to 175th out of 180 countries in its 2022 World Press Freedom Index from 140th a year earlier. The NGO said Myanmar had become “one of the world’s biggest jailer of journalists, second only to China.”


Nguyen Lan Thang

Nguyen Lan Thang, a long-time contributor of blog posts on politics and society to Radio Free Asia’s Vietnamese service, was sentenced in April to six years in prison and two years of probation.

He was arrested in July 2022 on allegations that he posted videos on Facebook and YouTube that were said to “oppose” the Vietnamese Communist Party.

He is one of four jailed Radio Free Asia contributors in Vietnam, and his conviction is the latest of a string of judgments against dissidents under Article 117 of Vietnam’s Penal Code, frequently used by authorities to restrict freedom of expression and opinions deemed critical of the regime.

“Although we disagree (if not oppose) with the trial and the verdict, our hearts feel warm because humanity is still alive,” wrote Thang’s wife Le Thi Bich Vuong, who added that her family still believes that Thang is “a patriot who has never done anything wrong with the country and his conscience.”

Thang’s arrest and conviction was widely condemned by human rights and media freedom advocates, who said his case was riddled with flaws and a miscarriage of justice.


Nguyen Van Hoa

Nguyen Van Hoa, who has blogged and produced videos for Radio Free Asia, was arrested in January 2017 for “abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the state” after filming protests outside a Taiwan-owned steel plant, whose spill of toxic waste the year before had left fishermen and tourism workers jobless in four coastal provinces.

Hoa is an environmentalist, blogger and digital security trainer from Ha Tinh province who expressed sympathy for the fishermen hurt by the massive disaster. He received a seven-year jail term in November 2017 on charges that also included “conducting propaganda against the state.”

Amnesty International has said that Hoa was tortured by the authorities to confess to his alleged crime and in May 2019 was being held in solitary confinement as punishment for his refusal to cooperate.

Hoa wrote in letters smuggled to his family from prison that police had “hung him upside down from the ceiling and then beaten him,” London-based human rights activist Son Tran told RFA in early 2020.


Nguyen Tuong Thuy

Nguyen Tuong Thuy — a regular blogger for Radio Free Asia on democracy, human rights, and social issues — is serving 11 years in prison for “propaganda against the state.”

Thuy, 72, co-founded the Independent Journalists Association of Vietnam in 2014. He served as vice president of the organization until his arrest in May 2020.

In November 2020, Thuy and two other IJAVN members were indicted for “making, storing, and disseminating documents and materials for anti-state purposes” under Article 117 of Vietnam’s Penal Code, frequently used by authorities in the Communist country to silence critics.

In 2021, Thuy’s wife, Pham Thi Lan, told RFA that Thuy was in failing health with limited access to medical treatment for ailments including back pain, high blood pressure, scabies and inflammatory bowel disease, after visiting him on May 14.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, a media freedom watchdog group, Vietnam had detained 21 journalists for their professional activities as of Dec. 1, 2022.


Truong Duy Nhat

Truong Duy Nhat, who had been a weekly contributor to Radio Free Asia before his abduction by police in Thailand in January 2019, was convicted in March 2020 of “abusing his position and authority” in a decade-old land fraud case and jailed for 10 years.

Nhat, who described his case as politically motivated, said at his trial that after seeking political asylum in Thailand at the beginning of 2019, he was arrested by Thai Royal Police and handed over to Vietnamese police, who took him across the border into Laos, and from there back to Vietnam.

After a December 2020 visit to Nhat in prison, a friend said he was being forced to work eight hours a day making paper money for sale as temple offerings, and that working long hours in a seated position had aggravated the pain he was suffering from herniated discs.

Nhat was jailed before in Vietnam from 2013 to 2015 for his writings criticizing the one-party government.

Vietnam has been consistently rated “not free” in the areas of internet and press freedom by Freedom House, a U.S.-based watchdog group, while another press freedom group said journalists jailed in the country are often subject to mistreatment.

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