The Formosa Spill and Violation of Freedom of Speech in Vietnam

By: Lauren Kissel

One of the biggest environmental disasters in Vietnamese history occurred in April 2016 when the Formosa Ha Tinh Steel Corporation discharged a combination of toxic chemicals, including cyanide, phenols, and iron hydroxide into the ocean.[1] This spill affected 120 miles of coastline and caused many environmental problems.[2] In particular, the toxic chemicals spilled into the ocean killed much of the marine life.[3] This was particularly detrimental to the people of Vietnam, as many of them depend on fishing to make a livelihood.[4] Additionally, the toxic chemicals caused hundreds of people to become sick from eating the poisoned fish.[5]


This environmental disaster caused much controversy throughout Vietnam.[6] The Vietnamese government originally tried to cover up the chemical spill, claiming that the marine life deaths were caused by a toxic algae bloom.[7] A few months later the government stated that it had found the cause of the problem, but that it could not tell the public since the investigation was ongoing.[8] This dishonesty from the government angered many people and incited month long protests throughout the country.[9] However, these protests only furthered the problem as the government still refused to release information and instead arrested more than 500 protestors.[10]


In addition to suppressing protests, the government also restricted news coverage of this toxic spill.[11] However, the government was not able to completely suppress all speech. Several Vietnamese bloggers reported on the events.[12] Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, otherwise known as “Mother Mushroom,” is one of Vietnam’s most influential political activists and bloggers.[13] After reporting on the Formosa spill she was sentenced to ten years in prison for “conducting propaganda against the state” in violation of Article 88 of Vietnam’s Penal Code.[14] 22-year-old blogger Nguyen Van Hoa was also recently convicted of the same offense and sentenced to seven years in prison after writing blog posts and sharing videos and pictures of the spill’s effects on Facebook.[15]


These harsh sentences against the two Vietnamese bloggers have sparked outrage in Vietnam and elsewhere throughout the world. While Vietnam regularly censors state-controlled media, the blogging community is able to avoid these regulations.[16] Despite this, in many instances the government tries to suppress blogging by intimidating, physically assaulting, and imprisoning bloggers for their writings.[17] The Human Rights Watch has stated that Article 88 of the Penal Code “has been regularly used to arbitrarily punish critics of the government and peaceful activists.”[18]


This suppression of speech by the Vietnamese government is arguably unconstitutional. Article 25 of the current constitution of Vietnam, adopted in 2013, states that “[t]he citizen shall enjoy the right to freedom of opinion and speech, freedom of the press, of access to information, to assemble, form associations and hold demonstrations. The practice of these rights shall be provided by the law.”[19] It is clear that the Vietnamese government was violating this constitutional right by imprisoning the individuals who published information about the Formosa spill. By trying to cover up the Formosa spill, the government was suppressing freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of access to information. The Vietnamese citizens have a right to know about the toxic spill, especially since it could have prevented illness and helped to cure those who were sick.


Additionally, Vietnam’s suppression of speech is also a violation of international law. Vietnam is a party the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).[20] Article 19 of the ICCPR states that “Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.”[21] Therefore, as a party to the ICCPR, “Vietnam has an obligation to respect and protect the right to free speech.”[22]


It is clear that Vietnam has violated Article 19 of the ICCPR on multiple levels. To begin with, the lengthy prison sentences of bloggers Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh and Nguyen Van Hoa for reporting on the Formosa spill is a direct violation of these individuals’ right to freedom of expression guaranteed by the ICCPR. The repeated harassment and intimidation of Vietnamese bloggers is also likely a violation of the ICCPR. Finally, Vietnam’s repeated use of Article 88 of the Penal Code to justify this imprisonment of Vietnamese bloggers and protestors not only violates these individuals’ rights under the ICCPR, but also violates the rights of all Vietnamese citizens by suppressing the freedom to seek and receive information that everyone is guaranteed.


In addition to these substantive violations of the ICCPR, Vietnam has also violated the procedural requirements of this treaty as well. Under the ICCPR, countries that have ratified the treaty have an obligation to report to the Human Rights Committee (HRC) every four years.[23] The HRC can take action against a party to the treaty if “ten member states of the ICCPR . . . report violations about the country to the HRC.”[24] While there are extensive procedures in place to ensure that member states abide by the obligations established under the ICCPR, Vietnam continues to violate these obligations.[25] For example, Vietnam has not issued a report to the HRC since 2004.[26]


The Formosa spill highlighted one of the major issues in Vietnam today. It is clear from the imprisonment of Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh and Nguyen Van Hoa that Vietnam is not fulfilling its obligation under its constitution and the ICCPR of guaranteeing freedom of speech for its citizens. The Vietnamese government continues to keep its citizens in the dark and refuses to provide them with crucial information that could save their lives or their livelihood, such as information about the toxic waste that was dumped into the ocean. This suppression of a fundamental human right will only continue to cause tensions and strife in Vietnam and result in even more protests. Therefore, it is crucial that actions be taken soon to ensure that the Vietnamese government changes its ways before it is too late.





[1] Richard Paddock, Taiwan-Owned Steel Factory Caused Toxic Spill, Vietnam Says, NY Times (June 30, 2016),

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Richard Paddock, Toxic Fish in Vietnam Idle Local Inudstry and Challenge the State, NY Times (June 8, 2016),

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Taiwan-Owned Steel Factory Caused Toxic Spill, Vietnam Says, supra note 1.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Michael Tatarski, Citizen Journalist Jailed 7 Years for Reporting Environmental Disaster in Vietnam, Mongaby (Dec. 1, 2017),

[13] Vietnam: Drop Charges Against ‘Mother Mushroom’, Human Rights Watch (Nov. 30, 2017),

[14] Id.

[15] Richard Paddock, Vietnamese Bloggers Gets 7 Years in Jail for Reporting on Toxic Spill, NY Times (Nov. 27, 2017),

[16] Bennett Murray, Mother Mushroom: How Vietnam Locked up it’s Most Famous Blogger, The Guardian (July 8, 2017),

[17] Vietnam: Drop Charges Against Mother Mushroom, supra note 13.

[18] Id.

[19] The Constitution of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam 2013, art. 25.

[20] Tiffany Dang, et al., Vietnam Human Rights Report 2015, Office of Senator Thanh Hai Ngo, at 20.

[21] International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, art. 18, Dec. 19, 1966, 999 U.N.T.S. 171 [hereinafter ICCPR].

[22] Dang et al., supra note 20, at 48.

[23] Sophie Goodman, A Country Burning for Religious Freedom: The New Draft Law on Freedom of Religion in Vietnam, 26 Mich. St. Int’l L. Rev. 159, 182 (2018).

[24] Id. at 180.

[25] Id. at 180­­–82.

[26] Id. at 182.