Vietnamese Publishing House Co-Founder Arrested Ahead of Frankfurt Appearance

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

The IPA Prix Voltaire-winning Liberal Publishing House’s Pham Doan Trang is reported to have been arrested in Ho Chi Minh City on allegations of ‘anti-state activity.’

Pham Doan Trang. Image: IPA

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

See our complete guide to Frankfurter Buchmesse 2020 here. It has our latest stories, event highlights, our free digital magazine, and more.

Boos: ‘We Are Very Concerned’
Scheduled to address an October 15 discussion at  Frankfurter Buchmesse on the freedom to publish, a co-founder of the 2020 Prix Voltaire-winning Liberal Publishing House has been arrested. An alert from Amnesty International issued within an hour of this writing warns that Pham Doan Trang is “at grave risk of torture.”

Amnesty’s director of campaigns, Ming Yu Hah, says that Pham Doan Trang “may face up to 20 years in prison” as “an internationally-recognized author and human rights defender who has been repeatedly targeted by the Vietnamese authorities solely for peacefully exercising her right to freedom of expression.”

Buchmesse president and CEO Juergen Boos has made a statement this morning (October 7), saying, “We are very concerned about Pham Doan Trang’s arrest, just before the start of the world’s largest book fair, the place where freedom of expression is celebrated.

“We are glad that the international publishing community will be hearing from Pham Doan Trang during the recorded session “Guerrilla Publishing and International Support.”

As Publishing Perspectives readers know, Liberal Publishing House (Nhà xuất bản Tự Do) in June was named this year’s winner of the International Publishers Association‘s (IPA) Prix Voltaire for courage in the freedom to publish.

Juergen Boos

Pham Doan Trang appeared at the time in a videotaped acceptance message, serving as the spokesperson and the only widely seen face of this clandestine press, which produces content that Hanoi has tried to suppress.

A new report filed by BBC News indicates that Pham Doan Trang was arrested late Tuesday (October 6) in Ho Chi Minh City on charges of carrying out anti-state activities. Pham Doan Trang has acted not only as a publisher but as an author of several of Liberal’s books, and as a journalist.

One of the participants in the upcoming event at Frankfurt, Will Nguyen, has tweeted out a letter left by Pham Doan Trang in case of her detention. In “Just in Case I Am Imprisoned,” she writes, in part, “If prison is inevitable for freedom fighters, if prison can serve a pre-determined purpose, then we should happily accept it.”

Setzer: ‘I Salute Her Bravery’

In her message in June, she said, “The men and women who work for the Liberal Publishing House every day risk their freedom and even their lives just to publish books. The award that we receive today does not just recognize our tireless efforts but it represents the bravery of tens of thousands of Vietnamese readers who have been harassed, who have been arrested, and interrogated simply for reading our books.”

In July, as you’ll remember, a report from Radio Free Asia—a congressionally funded program based in Washington under the US Agency for Global Media—announced that Pham Doan Trang would step away from her role as spokesperson for the press she co-founded. This, as both the IPA and PEN America joined with a broad-based group of international humanitarian agencies in calling for the Vietnamese government to halt a “crackdown on independent media and those who express dissent.”

The planned session in this year’s digital evocation of Frankfurt is expected to include:

  • Kristenn Einarsson, chair of the IPA’s Freedom to Publish committee
  • Will Nguyen, campaigner
  • Pham Doan Trang, former spokesperson for Liberal Publishing House
  • Moderator: James Taylor, IPA director communications

Our report on all of the IPA’s sessions planned for next week in partnership with Frankfurter Buchmesse Special Edition is here.

Kristenn Einarsson

From its offices in Geneva, the IPA has released a statement from Kristenn Einarsson, who chairs the association’s Freedom To Publish committee and the Prix Voltaire program.

“This is terrible news,” Einarsson says, “but also, sadly, predictable.

“Pham Doan Trang and Liberal Publishing House have had to operate in hiding and on the run for years. Her work and courage are an inspiration to all publishers, and the international publishing community must support her and fight for real freedom to publish in Vietnam.”

Hugo Setzer

Hugo Setzer, the IPA president, says, “Pham Doan Trang took these risks knowingly in defense of freedom of expression.

“I salute her bravery and her strength of conviction.

“We hear her call for election reform in Vietnam, but we must also denounce her arrest and urge the Vietnamese authorities to release her.”

Einarsson: ‘An Inspiration to All Publishers’

Seen in silhouette to protect their identities, employees of Vietnam’s clandestine Liberal Publishing House are pictured in a video acknowledgment of the International Publishers Association’s selection of the group for the 2020 Prix Voltaire. Image: Liberal Publishing House

Press reports such as this November article by Adam Bemma for Al Jazeera describe Liberal Publishing House as an outfit that operates in the dark, moving people and equipment from place to place when needed so that Hanoi can’t detect the team’s whereabouts and activities.  Press and human rights organizations’ reports confirm that both those who work with the press and consumers of its books can be subject to detention and questioning by the authorities.

“The Vietnamese government has always used prisoners of conscience as pawns to trade with foreign governments.”Pham Doan Trang, letter in case of her arrest

In addition to the 2020 Prix Voltaire for that guerrilla publishing house she co-founded, Pham Doan Trang was recognized last year as the still-young press started operation by Reporters Without Borders for the impact of her work, an honor reported by Deutsche Welle.

In today’s report from Deutsche Welle on her arrest, the German news network says, “Despite extensive economic reforms and increasing openness to social change, the ruling Communist Party of Vietnam tolerates little criticism. Before an important party congress in January next year , it will take action against activists . Vietnam ranks 175th out of 180 countries in the press freedom list of the organization Reporters Without Borders. According to this, bloggers and citizen journalists are the only independent source of information.

In its report, Reuters today notes that Pham Doan Trang “was in 2014 among several activists apprehended by the authorities on their way to a meeting with former US president Barack Obama during his landmark visit to Vietnam.”

Radio Free Asia’s Paul Eckert today writes, “Vietnam’s already low tolerance of dissent has deteriorated sharply this year with a spate of arrests of independent journalists and publishers, as well as Facebook personalities. And activists say things are likely to get worse as authorities stifle critics in the run-up to the ruling Communist Party congress in January.

“Estimates of the number of prisoners of conscience now held in Vietnam’s jails vary widely. HRW says that authorities held 138 political prisoners as of October 2019, while Defend the Defenders has suggested that at least 240 are in detention, with 36 convicted last year alone.”

Below is the acceptance video that Pham Doan Trang and Liberal Publishing House produced at the time of the Prix Voltaire announcement this summer:

More from Publishing Perspectives on the International Publishers Association is here, more on Vietnam is here, and more on the Prix Voltaire is here. Publishing Perspectives is an international media partner of IPA programs and services. 

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About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.