A Catholic priest in Vietnam has denounced demands in official media that he be “handled” by authorities for criticizing the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, describing as “slander” accusations in the press that he has broken the law by speaking out.
Father Dinh Huu Thoai, a priest in central Vietnam’s Quang Nam province, has posted writings on his Facebook page criticizing the government’s creation of a National COVID-19 Vaccine Fund and calls for ordinary citizens to contribute to it.
In response, Quang Nam’s provincial television station on Saturday aired a news story accusing Father Thoai of “smearing and distorting the Party and the State’s fight against COVID-19.”
The broadcast was followed a day later by an article in a Ministry of Public Security newspaper saying that Father Thoai had broken the country’s Law on Cyber Security and calling for him to be “handled” by authorities.
Speaking to RFA on Monday, Father Thoai called the charges of lawbreaking made against him in the mainstream press “slanderous.”
“How dare they run their news stories in that way?” Father Thoai asked.
“So far, no responsible agencies have affirmed any violations I may have committed, and no records of any violations have been made. It’s completely slanderous,” he said.
Father Thoai said that Quang Nam’s Department of Information and Communications had “invited” him on three separate occasions to meet with them regarding his posts, but said he had declined to speak with them. Authorities had also recently closed his Facebook account without explanation, making the issue irrelevant, he said.
“It’s reasonable and legitimate for me or for any citizen to question the transparency of the COVID-19 Vaccine Fund. It’s not an infringement of the law,” he said. “In fact, it’s the people who attack those who speak up who are the lawbreakers, as they have violated the people’s right to freedom of expression.”
Vietnam’s state media have impunity to say whatever they want to say, Father Thoai told RFA.
“They can even make up stories and slander people freely without being sanctioned, while people are attacked and accused [by the authorities] when they tell the truth if that truth makes officials unhappy. This is what they have been doing to me,” he said.
Vietnam’s government established the COVID-19 Vaccine Fund in late May to receive and manage donations to purchase and import vaccines as well as conduct research to produce domestic vaccines, collecting over VND 8,700 (US$384 million) so far from individuals and organizations in Vietnam and overseas.
A call from the government for officials, civil servants, and employees to contribute a day’s salary to the Fund has prompted criticisms nationwide, with officials remaining silent on how much interest is being generated by donated funds still kept in the bank.
As of Monday, Vietnam has reported a total of 19,845 deaths from COVID-19, with 813,961 cases of infection also recorded.
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