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Vietnam Government Claims to Work with Google and Facebook to Remove Thousands of Anti-government Content

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Vietnamese activist Anh Chi searches internet at Tu Do (Freedom) cafe in Hanoi, Vietnam August 25, 2017. Picture taken on August 25, 2017. REUTERS/Kham

Vietnam’s head of the Internet management authority, Nguyen Thanh Lam, has repeatedly claimed that the government has been working with Facebook and Google to remove thousands of videos and accounts from these tech giants’ platforms, according to the country’s mainstream media.

During a press conference on July 7, 2017, the former prominent journalist made the announcement that Youtube, a Google’s product, had removed 3,000 video clips that contained “toxic content” and Facebook had also removed 600 accounts that were fake or contained information that distorted individuals and organizations.

Among those 600 accounts are 132 accounts that frequently distorted or smeared the Communist Party, the government, groups, and individuals, VietNamNet reported.

In an interview with VietNamNet, Nguyen Thanh Lam also expressed his appreciation to Google and Facebook for their cooperation with the Vietnam’s government.

“They understand why we made such requests”, said Mr. Nguyen.

Facebook sent Monika Bickert, Head of Global Policy Management, to Vietnam on April 26 to meet with the Minister of Information and Communication Truong Minh Tuan. According to the Vietnam News Agency, Ms. Bickert told the minister that Facebook was willing to cooperate with the Vietnamese government to block toxic content that violates the local laws.

During the meeting, the Facebook’s representative also made a commitment that they would create a separate channel to process Vietnam’s requests.

A month later, Eric Schmidt, the Chairman of Google’s parent company Alphabet Inc., met Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc in Hanoi. He reportedly said that “Google will cooperate with the government” to prevent and remove bad information on Youtube.

Mr. Nguyen Thanh Lam noted that it had been easier to convince Youtube than Facebook: “There was toxic information that Youtube already removed or blocked but Facebook does not”.

We found no information about Vietnam’s requests in 2017 on Google Transparency Report and Facebook’s Government Requests Report, potentially because they have only released reports until 2016.

The Google’s report shows Vietnam has made five content removal requests to Google since 2010. It is not confirmed that Google has actually cooperated with the Vietnamese government to remove the mentioned contents.

However, the tech giant’s website highlights two content removal requests made by the Vietnamese government. One is a blog that “allegedly contained information about the military and criticized the government”, and one is “to remove search results on a particular word that generated results that contained allegedly unflattering depictions of past Vietnamese leaders.” Google declined both requests.

It has been 20 years since Larry Page and Sergey Brin created Google. It is the same period of which Vietnam has been connected to the Internet. The country currently has approximately 50 million Internet users which amount to more than half of the population, and 45 million Facebook users. Both platforms are the most popular search engine and social network in Vietnam respectively.

Yet, the two tech giants are now considered as real threats to the government as they help people access uncensored information about the communist regime and generate political discussions.

In October 2013, Dinh Nhat Uy – the brother of a jailed activist – was sentenced to one year and three months of probation only for using Facebook to criticize the government.

A prominent human rights activist, blogger Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh (Mother Mushroom), was also sentenced to 10 years of imprisonment in June 2017 partly for posting articles that “contain untruthful and baseless information” about the Communist Party and its sole-leadership over the political system of Vietnam.

The government usually uses three internationally-condemned criminal provisions, Article 79, 88 and 258, to put dissidents and activists in jail.

Not only criminalizing online expression, Hanoi also puts administrative sanctions on those who voice their dissents on the Internet. Websites’ owners, social networks, and Internet users may be fined up to US$4,700 for “criticizing the government, the Party or national heroes” or “spreading propaganda and reactionary ideology against the state”

Many Facebook users and bloggers have been fined under these regulations, according to a Freedom House’s report.

It is significant to note that the Vietnamese government has made claims about receiving cooperation from Google and Facebook since early 2017, in the middle of a new crackdown on the democracy movement that has led to at least 16 activists and dissidents being arrested or convicted.

In 2014, Vietnam was named as an enemy of the Internet by Reporters Without Borders, a France-based human rights organization.

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COVID-19: Why Vietnam’s Second Positive Wave Might Not Be Entirely Negative

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Vietnamese people quickly wear masks as protective gears. Photo courtesy: The Vietnamese

After nearly 100 days of zero new confirmed cases in the local community, within the last 10 days, there has been a jump in the number of patients contracting the virus in various cities in Vietnam.

According to official figures, in the six months from January 23  to July 25, there were only 140 local cases, the rest were imported patients, and zero fatalities. Since July 25, in a period of less than two weeks, more than 300 new local cases have been confirmed with 10 deaths so far.

Da Nang, the third largest city of the country, has become the new epicenter of the pandemic. 

While this new surge seems to have caught the entire nation by surprise, in reality it is a scenario that was long written on the wall, with the pandemic having never really ceased to rock countries after it first appeared on the world stage in January 2020 (the first reported case outside of China). And though it has created a new scare among citizens, it is a positive and necessary alarm.

Empty street in Hoi An city in August 2020. Photo Courtesy: The Vietnamese

To the moon and back

More than three months without domestic positive cases had put the whole nation in a complacent mode. Even the health care staff at hospitals had lowered their guard. Most of the initial cases from July 25 were linked to patients and their caretaker relatives in Da Nang hospitals.

Since then, the virus has quickly spread throughout the community and to other cities.

Fortunately, it does not take long for the whole system to restart and quickly return  to crisis mode. Da Nang was almost immediately put under partial lockdown, with thorough contact tracing being carried out for every new case. People who had been in close contact with new positive cases were put under quarantine. Medical teams and personnel from Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh were sent to the epicenter to help relieve the pressure and the wearing of face masks in public in big cities became mandatory again. 

There is reason to be optimistic about the ability of the country to contain the new wave despite it having caught everyone off guard.

Local wet market in Hoi An City. Photo courtesy: The Vietnamese

Through the looking glass of Taiwan

With the initial success in containing Covid-19, there has been an ongoing debate among citizens on whether Vietnam’s authoritarian system is better equipped than other democratic societies to cope with a pandemic. However, focusing on governing systems might miss some critical points.

Comparing Vietnam with Taiwan, an exemplary success in the fight against this pandemic, may provide some useful insights.

At first glance, the two countries could not be more different. One is a communist state, the other one of the most vibrant democratic systems in the world. At closer look, Vietnam and Taiwan share some vital similarities in the fight against Covid-19. 

They both are next to China, the origin of the pandemic. Both governments, and especially their people, have the same distrust of the Chinese Communist Party, hence the high alert mode from the very beginning, long before other countries took this infectious disease seriously. They also share painful experiences from the SARS pandemic in 2003, which also originated from China. With those scars still fresh in mind, going through this crisis is like bathing in the same river twice. They knew how and where to swim.

The culture and society also played an important role here. 

Both countries are still dominated by Confucious-like ideals about the need for a harmonious society where collectivism trumps individualism. In the case of major crises like a pandemic, this kind of mindset helps glue the community together faster, quickly putting everyone into the same “for the common good” mode. 

This particular pandemic, Covid-19, in which the elderly are the most vulnerable, also highlights one important aspect: how societies treat and value their aged populations.

In Vietnam, like Taiwan, most families have at least one senior member living under the same roof. Therefore, most people, even the younger generations, despite being in low-risk groups, still voluntarily took extra precautions to protect their family members.

Opportunities lie in the midst of every crisis, as the old saying goes. And there are many opportunities for a change-demanding society like Vietnam.

While the resurgence has shattered the illusion of exceptionalism, deflating many hardcore aficionados of the authoritarian system, it has also inflated the constant alert mindset, which is a life-and-death difference in the fight against most infectious diseases.

The health crisis also puts the whole governing system in the spotlight, pushing the need for greater transparency and accountability.

With the virus always seeming to have a head start, the authorities have had no other option than to constantly play catch-up. Around-the-clock updates and publicized data and numbers are now the new normal. Government officials are forced to focus on containing the spread of the pandemic. Even when the pandemic is over, it is hard to imagine returning to “the old normal”. 

The virus has also created space for a newborn civil society. With the government’s resources stretched thin and vastly inadequate, citizens and volunteer groups have organized themselves for a wide range of mutual-support activities, from donating basic necessities to setting up coordinating teams to offer transportation for supplies and people in need. Again, when the pandemic is over, citizens who have trained themselves in this new normal will not be easily caged again. Instead, they will demand a greater place on the stage in building a common and better society for themselves.

A deadly pandemic is obviously not an ideal scenario to push for a positive change in any society. But as in any crisis, a good response brings along good reforms. 

There are reasons to be optimistic about the emergence of some form of positive change after the country has gone through this extraordinary period. 

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9th Annual Vietnam Advocacy Day

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Vietnam Advocacy Day is an annual event, organized by Boat People SOS, where Vietnamese Americans across the United States come to Washington, DC to meet with their representatives to voice about human rights issues in Vietnam and to connect with other Vietnamese diaspora community, human rights witnesses and advocates. Due to COVID-19, the 9th annual VNAD 2020 will take place through several webinars.

Please register for the webinars at the links below.

Webinar 1: Friday July 31st, 9AM- 11AM EDT

Topic: Freedom of Religion and the Rights of Indegenous Peoples

Register for Webinar 1: http://tiny.cc/VAD2020-FORB-1

Webinar 2: Friday July 31st, 1PM- 3PM EDT

Topic: Freedom of Religion and the Rights of Indegenous Peoples continued

Register for Webinar 2: http://tiny.cc/VAD2020-FORB-2

Webinar 3: Friday August 7th, 9AM- 11AM EDT

Topic: Freedom of Expression, the Press and Internet

Register for Webinar 3http://tiny.cc/VAD2020-EXPRESSION

Webinar 4: Friday August 7th, 1PM- 3PM EDT

Topic: Freedom of Expression, the Press and Internet
Topic: Prisoners of Conscience and Torture

Register for Webinar 4: http://tiny.cc/VAD2020-POC

Webinar 5: Friday August 14th, 9AM- 11AM EDT

Topic: UN Mechanisms and Sanctions

Register for Webinar 5: http://tiny.cc/VAD2020-UN

Webinar 6: Friday August 14th, 1PM- 3PM EDT

Topic: Freedom of Expression, the Press and Internet
Topic: UN Mechanisms and Sanctions – continued

Register for Webinar 6http://tiny.cc/VAD2020-SANCTION

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Press Release

Luat Khoa and The Vietnamese’s Press Release on the Indictment of Three Members of The Independent Journalists Association of Vietnam (IJAVN)’s

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As media organizations, Luat Khoa and The Vietnamese magazines vehemently denounce the three recent arrests of the three members of IJAVN: Le Huu Minh Tuan (detained on June 12, 2020), Nguyen Tuong Thuy (detained on May 23, 2020, and Pham Chi Dung (detained on November 21, 2019).

All of these three journalists were charged with the crime “publish, store, and disseminate or propagandize information, documentation, and products against the Social Republic of Vietnam” (Article 117 of Vietnam’s current Penal Code). This penal code has already been viewed as a blatant violation of people’s freedom of speech and free press by many human rights organizations. 

IJAVN – together with running its Vietnam Thoi Bao newspaper – is a regular civil society organization formed under the right to associate, and it sets to implement the right for a free press and promote an independent and decent media for Vietnam.

Luat Khoa and The Vietnamese magazines share and support the values in which the IJAVN pursues. 

As journalists, we ultimately care for the safety of our other colleagues. We consider the reality of a government trying to silence any journalist to be an imminent threat to us and anyone who practices free speech.

Silencing journalists is also a violation of the right to read free and independent media of the people.

We have realized that the call for the government of Vietnam to release immediately and unconditionally these three journalists of IJAVN would be unrealistic in the situation of Vietnam. However, that action is the only righteous conduct that the Vietnamese government could act right now, and therefore, we call on them to immediately do so.

We also call on all of the journalists, the activists, the public, the international organizations, and the foreign governments to jointly monitor and pressure the Vietnamese authorities to release the three journalists, Pham Chi Dung, Nguyen Tuong Thuy, and Le Huu Minh Tuan; and to call on the government to respect the Vietnamese people’s right for a free press and the freedom to form associations.

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To contact us, please email editor@luatkhoa.org

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