HONG KONG — Vietnam sentenced three journalists to prison on Tuesday, including a prominent reporter who had written for foreign news organizations and advocated press freedom in the one-party state.
The sentences are the latest crackdown on independent thought in a country where the authorities are busy stamping out dissent ahead of an important meeting by the ruling Communist Party later this month.
The prominent journalist, Pham Chi Dung, was sentenced to 15 years on charges of making and disseminating propaganda against the state. Mr. Dung is the founder of the Independent Journalists Association of Vietnam, an unsanctioned group that was established seven years ago in a country where all media is state-owned and the Communist Party has built a large apparatus to stifle dissent.
Two other journalists, Nguyen Tuong Thuy and Le Huu Minh Tuan, were sentenced on similar charges in the same Ho Chi Minh City court. They received 11 years each.
Critics of the government denounced the prison terms. “The accused are completely innocent, and their arrest is a blatant violation of the Vietnamese Constitution and international laws,” said Nguyen Quang A, one of the country’s most prominent dissidents.
Le Cong Dinh, another dissident and a former prisoner, said that the sentences were “unreasonably long.”
“They are not based on evidence and behavior, but stem from panic at the prospect of people rising up to demand and exercise their freedoms,” he added.
Mr. Dung has written for popular dissident blogs in Vietnam, as well as the BBC and Voice of America, a Washington-based news organization that receives funding from the United States government.
He was arrested in late 2019 after he issued a petition urging the European Union not to ratify a free-trade agreement with Vietnam that it had signed a few months earlier. He said that his country should first improve its human rights record and its treatment of journalists.
The Ho Chi Minh City court said that Mr. Dung had started the independent journalists association as a way of inciting people to defame the Communist Party, local news outlets reported on Tuesday.
Mr. Dinh, the activist, disputed that narrative. “This is a man who has an unshakable belief in citizens’ right to freedom of speech,” he said.
The three sentences were handed down weeks before Vietnam holds the biggest event on its political calendar: The Communist Party’s national congress, which meets every five years to select the country’s top leaders.
The party’s general secretary, Nguyen Phu Trong, a 76-year-old ideologue, is expected to retain a prominent role in the leadership.
As the congress draws nearer, the authorities have been arresting or prosecuting their loudest critics.
“The time is conducive for prospective future party leaders to demonstrate their loyalty to the socialist one-party regime by squelching pro-democracy activists to ensure a smooth run-up” to the congress, Carl Thayer, a longtime Vietnam analyst, wrote in October.
Mr. Thayer was writing a day after the police in Ho Chi Minh City arrested a prominent journalist and activist, Pham Doan Trang. Ms. Trang was charged under the same article of Vietnam’s criminal code that Mr. Dung was sentenced under on Tuesday, and she faces up to 20 years in prison.
Among other sensitive moves, Ms. Trang recently co-wrote a report that challenged the official account of a deadly police raid in a village near the capital, Hanoi. She also reported on a 2016 environmental disaster caused when a steel factory owned by a Taiwan company discharged toxic waste into the sea along a stretch of Vietnam’s central coast.
In the past, Vietnamese officials were more concerned about how imprisoning journalists and dissidents might look to the outside world. But they have been invigorated in recent years by the Trump administration, which has widely ignored human rights abuses.
They are also emboldened by their country’s increasing importance as a global manufacturing hub, and its role as a strategic American ally in a region where Beijing is asserting its influence and its maritime claims in the South China Sea.
Chau Doan contributed reporting from Hanoi, Vietnam.