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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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Pham Doan Trang Received Prize for Impact from Reporters Without Borders’ 2019 Press Freedom Awards

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Photo credits: RSF

On September 12, 2019, our editor Pham Doan Trang had received the Prize for Impact from Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Awards 2019 in Berlin, Germany.

Trang was not able to travel and received her award in person. Instead, our editor Trinh Huu Long and also the editor-in-chief for Luat Khoa magazine was representing Trang to accept it.

Being her colleagues, The Vietnamese magazine’s staff is delighted and honored that Doan Trang received the Impact award. We have all been inspired and moved by her tireless efforts – as she stated – to make sure that “journalism is not a crime anywhere in the world.” Together with her, we all work for Vietnam to soon be a democratic country.

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Imprisoned Dissident – Anh Ba Sam – Encountered Odd Events Before Release Date

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Portrait of Anh Ba Sam. Photo credits: Luat Khoa Magazine.

Journalist Nguyen Huu Vinh (whose pen name is Anh Ba Sam) faced quite a few peculiar encounters in Prison Center Number 5, Yen Dinh district, Thanh Hoa province in recent months.

According to Le Thi Minh Ha, his wife, on December 9, 2018, a man in a police uniform came to visit Vinh in his prison cell and spent an hour and a half talking to him. At the end of their conversation, the man left behind an envelope full of money and told Vinh that after his release from prison he should support To Lam, the current minister of public security – the national police force in Vietnam.

Mrs. Ha told Luat Khoa magazine: “My husband recounted the story to me when I visited him. Neither one of us could grasp what was happening. Who was this man and who had directed him to do such a thing? Was he someone who works for To Lam or someone who wanted to harm To Lam? Nevertheless, it could also be intimidation. We think we should publicize this information to protect Vinh.”

Both Ha and Vinh went to college with the current Minister To Lam in the 1970s, where all three were studying at the People’s Security Academy. This school is where the Vietnamese government trains its future secret police force officers.

Vinh was arrested on May 5, 2014, and at the time, To Lam was the vice minister of the Ministry of Public Security (MPS). He was held in pre-trial detention for almost two years before being convicted of “abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the state, the rights and interests of other entities and citizens,” and sentenced to five-year-imprisonment on March 23, 2016. Before his arrest, he was the owner of the blog site Anh Ba Sam – one of the most famous online newspapers in Vietnam during the past few years.

Another event – which also caused Ha to have more concerns over her husband’s safety – happened on January 27, 2019, the day of her monthly visit to Prison Center Number 5.

She stated that one prison guard had requested to meet her in private and told her: “On the release day (which will be May 5, 2019), if there are only family members then the center will process the paperwork and release him at the gate of the prison. If there are other non-family members accompanying (you), carrying banners and posters with them, then the prison center will take Vinh to a remote area and leave him there by himself.”

“On March 4, 2019, my husband called me from the prison center in accordance with the monthly allowance of five-minute-phone calls, where he told me that the same prison guard met with him again in private and told him the same thing,” Ha informed Luat Khoa magazine.

Mrs. Ha had already sent a letter of complaint to Prison Center Number 5 on February 1, 2019, to report the previous incident. She received a response dated February 25, 2019, which insisted that no prison guard had communicated any such content to either her or Vinh at the center.

Luat Khoa indicated that its reporter contacted the prison center with the number Ha had provided in April 2019, but the person who answered the phone refused to acknowledge the name of the alleged prison guard. Instead, he stated that the name belongs to someone who lives near the prison center. When the Luat Khoa reporter pressed for the current condition of Nguyen Huu Vinh, the person then said he did not know.

Mrs. Ha had also lodged complaints regarding the threat to release Vinh in a desolate area with Minister To Lam, Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, the National Assembly Judicial Committee and its Chairwoman Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan, as well as Ho Thanh Dinh – The head of the Prison Management Bureau. However, all of her complaints eventually were passed down to Prison Center Number 5 to resolve.

“The person who threatened me and my husband was an officer at Center Number 5, and if all of my complaints were making their way back to this same place, then it would be meaningless. Both of us are feeling anxious and scared now that they (the prison guards) might try to harm Vinh one way or another,” Ha said.

On March 4, 2019, she also sent a letter to an alumni group consisting of her and Vinh’s former classmates at the People’s Security Academy, to suggest that if any one of them is going to accompany her on his release day, then please don’t bring any banner or poster so that they would be “in compliance with” the prison center’s request.

*** This story was first written in Vietnamese by Tran Ha Linh for Luat Khoa magazine on April 12, 2019. The Vietnamese has reviewed all of the complaints and letters which Mrs. Ha submitted and the official reply from the prison center. But because we only received information from Mrs. Ha, we decided at this time not to reveal the names of the prison guard or of the man in police uniform mentioned in this story.

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Exploring Tam Dao National Park, Group Of Vietnamese Youths Robbed And Beaten By Unknown Men

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Pictures recently take by Vietnamese who responded to the call to save Tam Dao rainforest. Photo credits: Save Tam Dao Facebook.

“My body crumbled because of the pain, but this group of strangers continued to beat me while using words to taunt me: ‘Aren’t you scared now, Hung? Don’t you care about your friend, dear?’”

In a Facebook’s post, the victim, Ta Manh Hung, recounted the horrible experience that he and four of his friends encountered on the evening of April 6, 2019, on Tam Dao mountain.

The group was traveling together that weekend, hoping to explore one of Vietnam’s most praised national parks and its rainforest, located in Vinh Phuc province near Hanoi. Prepared to spend the night at a camping grounds inside the forest, yet halfway to the destination, their journey was abruptly cut short when about a dozen strangers, all males, surrounded the group. The men then proceeded to use force to tie each of the youngsters to a tree stump about 20 meters apart and then they assaulted them.

The ordeal lasted for a couple of hours until nightfall, and when the weather began to get cold in the forest, the assailants decided to take off. They left the victims still tied up and took all of their personal property, including their mobile phones, cameras, watches, Kindles, back-up chargers, and the wallets that contained their identification papers.

Cold, scared and beaten, these youngsters, however, were able to use their teeth to slowly untie each other. Afterward, they managed to go to the nearby Tay Thien Pagoda to seek refuge for the night. The next day, local people helped them report the incident to the police of Tam Dao district.

The group’s violent encounter was first reported on Facebook in Vietnam last week. As it went viral, the public started to demand answers from the local authorities, prompting the mainstream media also to cover the story. In an interview with Nation (Tổ Quốc) newspaper, the police of Vinh Phuc province stated that they took the incident seriously and that they would handle it according to the law and regulations.

The public’s anger, however, may also be explained by the fact that Tam Dao national park has attracted the concern of many in recent months. Vietnamese people were wary that an ongoing development project, being constructed in the center of the rainforest might destroy its natural landscape and ecosystem.

A little more than three months ago, there were reports that Tam Dao’s primary rainforest and its diverse fauna and flora were under threat of environmental destruction.

Sun Group – one of Vietnam’s largest real estate developers – together with the government of Vinh Phuc province had initiated the construction of a resort in the middle of the national park. While the developers insisted that they were building an “ecotourism” project, environmentalists in the country decried the idea, stating that it would cause irreversible damages to the hundred-million-year-old rainforest’s ecosystem.

A Facebook group called Save Tam Dao started to document the current stages of theSun Group development project. It also called on others to join in and save the rainforest. Save Tam Dao has received quite a lot of support from Facebook users in Vietnam, especially among the younger generation.

Last month, together with other environmental activists and organizations, this group also initiated an online petition with Avaaz.org, calling on the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment to publicly reveal the project’s Environmental Impact Assessment.

Groups of youngsters have also started to travel more frequently to Tam Dao to take pictures of nature’s beauty. Some of those pictures, however, also showed the devastating damage that the resort’s development project had created thus far.

Hung’s group attempted to do the same thing during the previous weekend: travel to Tam Dao and explore the rainforest’s beauty. But its members tragically had a terrorizing encounter where they were robbed and assaulted.

It was, however, quite peculiar that the attackers also forced the group to give up the passwords of their phones. Once able to gain access, they then immediately began reviewing all of the stored messages and photos at once.

Hung was the only one that had refused to give up his passwords. As he later stated, he did not want unknown strangers to intrude on his privacy. The moment he did not comply, his suffering increased. These men tied him up, covered his head and beat him for hours, trying to get him to give up the password.

Irritated by his continuing refusal, the assailants threatened to plant drugs on his body and report him to the police. Then, they carried him up, still with his head covered, and told him that they would throw him down the abyss. Seeing Hung did not respond to the threats, they started to put various types of insects inside his clothes to let them bite him. To prevent others from hearing his screams, they stuffed Hung’s mouth with some handkerchief.

What was so important that the assailants were willing to use such tactics to gain access to Hung’s phone and would even use torture to get it? We may have to wait for the police investigation report to find out more.

This latest attack, however, raised many questions about public security and safety in the area. Tam Dao is a national park; it belongs to all of the people, and all of its people should be able to enjoy its beauty safely. But right now, it seems that not only the rainforest at Tam Dao is crying for help but so are the ones who love it.

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