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Vietnam: Increasing Cyber Attacks on Activists Portray A Shrinking Internet Freedom

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A policeman blocks photographers from taking pictures during an anti-China protest in front of the Opera House in Hanoi. Photo: Reuters/Nguyen Lan Thang

During the last week of November and in early December 2017, many of the independent media websites in Vietnam reported that access to their sites had been blocked. This includes The Vietnamese. Readers confirmed they could not access the attacked sites unless they installed VPN to get over the firewalls

Another independent news project also runs by The Vietnamese’s editorial board, Luat Khoa online legal magazine, was also blocked in Vietnam starting around December 4, 2017. Luat Khoa has been in operation for the past three years with over 90k likes on Facebook and an average of 500,000 pageviews per month. This is the first time Luat Khoa gets blocked in the country.

In a more severe case, on December 5, 2017, Dan Luan – another well-known independent site – shared on Facebook that their website was under DDoS attack for about a week in late November. A DDos attack is defined as “an attempt to make an online service unavailable by overwhelming it with traffic from multiple sources”.

Earlier last month, there were also failed attempts trying to inject Dan Luan’s website with malicious scripts via Cross-Site Scripting (XSS). Dan Luan frequently suffered cyber attacks, which they believed were the works of government-controlled hackers.

Also in November 2017, a handful of popular Facebookers lost access to their accounts because they were reported by anonymous users to Facebook for violations of community standards. Among them was blogger Nguoi Buon Gio, who now lives in exile in Germany.

It seems quite likely that the Vietnamese government would rely on cyber attacks as an important tactic for oppression in recent years when the numbers of Internet and social media users increased dramatically in the country.

In July 2017, We Are Social, a social media marketing and advertising reported Vietnam had surpassed Thailand to become the 7th country with the most Facebook users worldwide.

The government has not exactly been shy in expressing the desire to tighten their grip on controlling the virtual world. As previously reported, Vietnam claimed to have worked with Facebook and Google to remove thousands of videos and accounts that allegedly contained anti-state materials.

Earlier this year, in May 2017, Gen. Nguyen Danh Cong of the Ministry of Public Security stated during an intra-departmental meeting, that the MPS had successfully blocked thousands of websites which they deemed to be anti-state and reactionary contents.

Four years before that, on May 5, 2010, Gen. Vu Hai Trieu, the then Deputy Director of the MPS, announced: “Our technical departments have destroyed 300 Internet web pages and blogs posting unsuitable contents.”

Coincidentally, it was in early November 2017 that the Washington D.C.-based cybersecurity firm, Volexity, issued a report, confirming it has been – since May 2017 – monitoring an active operation of mass surveillance and cyber attacks operating out of Vietnam.

This operation includes the maintenance of an active group of hackers whose mission is to target Vietnamese activists and dissidents, as well as foreign citizens, corporations, and governments with interests in Vietnam.

It was not the first time that the international cybersecurity community had warned about hackers who seemed to have had a close tie with the Vietnamese government. In the past three years, besides Volexity, at least two other organizations, Electronic Frontier Foundation and FireEye, had issued similar reports.

Vietnam’s government is believed to have been maintaining a cyber espionage group calls OceanLotus since at least 2014. OceanLotus (or SeaLotus) is also known as APT-C-00 or APT32 according to these organizations.

There was also other information leading people to believe that OceanLotus was related to the hacker group Sinh Tu Lenh.

Sinh Tu Lenh became famous among Vietnamese cyber community about a decade ago when it was named as the party responsible for the numerous cyber attacks, aiming at dissidents, activists, and independent news sites, including Dan Luan, Talawas, Xcafevn, Anh Ba Sam, and Mother Mushroom.

Also recently, on November 14, 2017, Freedom House issued its Freedom on the Net report and named 30 countries where the government paid commentators and political bots to spread government propaganda. Vietnam was one of them.

According to Michael J. Abramowitz, president of Freedom House: “The effects of these rapidly spreading techniques on democracy and civic activism are potentially devastating.”

The report also quoted Sanjia Kelly, director of the Freedom on the Net project: “Governments are now using social media to suppress dissent and advance an anti-democratic agenda.”

“Not only is this manipulation difficult to detect, it is more difficult to combat than other types of censorship, such as website blocking because it’s dispersed and because of the sheer number of people and bots deployed to do it.”

But activists in Vietnam are not new to this form of government’s suppression. Back in 2014, our editorial board’s member, Pham Doan Trang, had met with Google and Facebook representatives in the U.S. where she forwarned them about the daily attacks these “paid opinion shapers” had fired at activists and bloggers in Vietnam and how such conducts affected democracy movement.

During the summer of 2014 alone, over 40 accounts of activists were reported, and in turn, got shut down by Facebook.

Calling themselves the government’s “cyber army forces”, these online bots repeatedly reported activists and bloggers’ Facebook accounts, effectively causing their shut-downs.

Taking advantages of Facebook’s loosely defined rules and standards of conducts for the users’ community, the troop of “opinion shapers” would abuse the Facebook’s “Report Abuse Button” with thousands of reports a day on a specifically targeted activist’s account.

Yet, to date, it seems that the activists and the democracy movement have proven their potential sustainability in Vietnam, because people are still actively promoting their causes and Facebook continues to be the main platform for advancing social changes, despite all odds.

Back in March 2015, facing the city government’s immediate decision to cut down some 6,700 trees in Hanoi, activists created a Facebook group and organized people for peaceful protests. They were able to mobilize residents of Hanoi and successfully stopped the city government from going forward with the plan.

In 2016, Facebook again proved its effectiveness, as it was one of the best platforms for informing the public about the Formosa environmental disaster in Central Vietnam. During the height of the weeks-long protests against Formosa Ha Tinh Steel Plant – the company responsible for causing the pollution – access to Facebook was blocked on a few weekends. But its popularity among the general public had caused the government to undo such decision almost immediately.

This year, in the recent months, drivers who were passing through a BOT toll in Cai Lay Ward, Tien Giang Province have been protesting the improper location of said toll. Their acts of civil disobedience – through various forms of slowing down the process of paying toll fees and causing the toll to close down – were followed closely by the public on Facebook and other social media platforms.

To protect themselves and fight back, Vietnamese activists have received technical assistance from organizations, such as Access Now, when they got reported by the government’s bots on Facebook or got struck by some other forms of cyber attacks.

In the meanwhile, the Draft Law on Cybersecurity – which mirrored that of China – is now waiting for the National Assembly’s approval.

And as such, the battle in the cyber world continues.

Human Rights

Two Years Later, Formosa Toxic Pollution Still Sends People to Prison in Vietnam

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Hoàng Đức Bình at his appeal hearing on April 24, 2018. Photo courtesy: Vietnam News Agency

April 24, 2018| After an approximate three-hour hearing, the Appellate Court of Nghe An Province, Vietnam, affirmed the 14-year sentence for blogger and human rights defender, Hoàng Đức Bình, in relation to the 2017 protests of Catholic fishermen in the areas affected by the Formosa environmental disaster.

Hoàng Đức Bình, a member of the Viet Labor Movement, was sentenced earlier this year by a trial court in February.

The story on the marine pollution caused by Taiwan’s Formosa Hà Tĩnh Steel Corporation broke out two years ago in Vietnam, prompting a nationwide protest in April and May 2016 where people demanded the company closed its steel mill business and ceased all of its operations.

Formosa admitted in May 2016 that they were responsible for the toxic spill from their factory into the local sea in violations of Vietnam’s laws, and agreed to pay 500 million USD for damages in a confidential settlement with the Vietnamese government.

The toxic pollution caused by Formosa is estimated to have affected the livelihood of people along more than 200 km of local seawaters in four coastal provinces of Central Vietnam.

To date, the public in Vietnam still has very little information regarding the settlement agreement while many affected families have yet to receive their shares in the settlement.

Thus, local people continued their protests against Formosa, and Hoàng Đức Bình was among them.

One of the activities Bình participated in, was to travel with fishermen from Quỳnh Lưu District, Nghệ An Province to the local courts in Hà Tĩnh Province – where Formosa is located – to file their civil suits against the company in February 2017, and the authorities of Nghệ An Province arrested him after that.

Attorney Nguyễn Khả Thành, one of Bình’s lawyers, announced the court’s decision on his Facebook today.

According to his lawyer, Hoàng Đức Bình was convicted on two separate charges under Vietnam’s 1999 Penal Code. Article 257 is for “resisting officers acting under their duty,” and Article 258 is for “abusing freedoms and democratic rights to infringe upon the State’s interest or the rights and interests of other entities and individuals.”

Bình was given the maximum sentence – 7 years – for each of the offenses, which implied that the court found his conduct to be “seriously harmful” to the public according to the sentencing guidelines of Articles 257 and 258.

Hoàng Đức Bình maintained that all he did was to accompany the fishermen and a Catholic priest in traveling from Nghệ An to Hà Tĩnh to file their civil suits.

Nghệ An Province was not among the list of the four provinces to receive compensation from Formosa’s 500M USD settlement, and hence, the need for fishermen there to file lawsuits to recover for their alleged damages arose.

On September 25, 2015, just a few months before the story of Formosa marine life disaster broke the news, world leaders have agreed on what now is known as the 17 Sustainable Developmentment Goals. Among them, the seriousness of climate change due to humans’ activities is highlighted, and that countries have agreed, future economic development must go hand in hand with environmental protection and respect for human rights.

After the trial court convicted Bình for a total of 14 years in February this year, UN experts and Special Rapporteurs issued a joint statement, condemning his arrest and sentence and demanded his release.

“Imprisoning bloggers and activists for their legitimate work raising public awareness on environmental and public health concerns is unacceptable,” said Baskut Tuncak, Special Rapporteur for Human Rights and Hazardous Substances and Wastes.

“We call on the authorities to release Hoang Duc Binh and Nguyen Nam Phong who were detained following their efforts to raise awareness and ensure accountability in relation to the spill of the Formosa Steel plant. Authorities must ensure that Viet Nam’s rapid economic expansion does not come at the expense of human rights, in particular those of local communities and workers.”

Another lawyer of Hoàng Đức Bình, Hà Huy Sơn, also wrote on his Facebook today: Bình told him that before his trial in February 2018, he was beaten up by death-row inmates who were put in the same cell as his.

Attorney Sơn also added in the same status, that the only witnesses participated in the trial were the traffic police officers involved in the alleged incident, and none of the video clips capturing the event were allowed to be introduced. He then concluded, the court has violated Vietnam’s criminal procedures and that the verdict is therefore unjust.

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Will #MeToo finally have its break in Vietnam?

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Photo credits: Alex Ivashenko/Unplash.com

In the late evening of April 18, 2018, many journalists in Vietnam began to share on social media a story that could come with the power to shatter the nation’s culture of playing down sexual harassment in the workplace and silencing victim.

A female intern at Tuổi Trẻ newspaper was rumored to have attempted to commit suicide and was hospitalized, after alleging that she was raped by her superior. Tuổi Trẻ is considered one of the largest – if not the largest – state-owned newspaper in Vietnam, owned by the Ho Chi Minh City Chapter of the Communist Youth Union.

By the next day, information about the alleged attacker surfaced, again, via social media.

Tuổi Trẻ – while along with some 800 other state-owned media did not publish an official story – yet did announce that they have suspended journalist Đặng Anh Tuấn – whose pen name is Anh Thoa – the Head of Tuổi Trẻ television news because of the allegations.

But at the same time, the editorial board denied in the same announcement that the intern was admitted to the hospital due to an attempted suicide.

On April 20, 2018, the faculty at the university where the victim is enrolled, delivered a deadly blow to Tuổi Trẻ’s editorial board.

In possibly one of the very first moves ever done by a university in the country for cases involving sexual harassment of their students, the Head of the Department of Journalism and Communications of The Vietnam National University Ho Chi Minh City sent an official letter to the editorial board at Tuổi Trẻ, demanding them to perform a formal investigation and provide the public with an explanation.

What surprised people was the fact that the faculty of the university stood by their student’s allegations by clarifying and denouncing Tuổi Trẻ’s description of her conditions in their press announcement.

The letter read, in parts:

“We would like to bring your attention to this specific issue so that it could be dealt with directly, that Student ‘Doe’ has endured a prolonged period of psychological trauma which produced catastrophic effects on both her physical and mental health, which in turn deteriorated her health and led her to face the negative decision concerning her life.”

The current story of the female journalist intern from Vietnam resembles very closely the ordeal of Japanese journalist Shiori Ito last year, who went public with the allegation that veteran journalist, Noriyuki Yamaguchi, raped her in April 2015.

But while Ms. Ito currently has to fight not only her ongoing legal battle but also a culture that preferred silence and shaming victims in a country like Japan – where #Metoo could not quite take off – the situation may be different in Vietnam this time.

It is encouraging to see that Vietnamese men and women – especially women – from all walks of life came out in support of the victim. The hashtags #MeToo and #letherdoherjob have been surfacing on Vietnam’s social media since Wednesday’s night, and they keep spreading.

First, other female journalists shared equally horrific stories about how they and their female colleagues too, were harassed and assaulted at works.

The amount of compassion – from journalists who used to work at Tuổi Trẻ – for the victim is also comforting to know. The reactions from many of the popular and veteran journalists on social media in the country are also positive.

The message from the majority was actually quite simple and clear: speak up if you have been a victim or know a victim; and call on Tuổi Trẻ to perform a thorough investigation and be transparent and accountable to the victim and the public.

But make no mistake that the culture of victim blaming and silencing does not exist in the country.

On the contrary, as in any other patriarchal society, Vietnam carries its own baggage, full of prejudice against female victims in most of the sexual harassment and sexual violence cases.

In Vietnam, while sexual harassment in the workplace was recognized in the Labour Code for the first time almost three years ago in May 2015, many victims still do not speak up or come forward with their stories.

One reason could be that there are still no clear and well-defined legal definitions for conducts that would constitute sexual harassment.

According to CARE, an international organization working on gender-based violence in Hanoi, Vietnam, 78.2% of victims of sexual harassment in the workplace are women.

Without a clear legal framework to protect them, female workers in Vietnam dare not to speak up because they are afraid of losing their job.

In 2014, ActionAid International Vietnam reported that their survey of over 2,000 women in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City revealed, that 87% of those answered have been a victim of sexual harassment in public where 67% of the bystanders who witnessed such conducts did nothing to help the victims. 31% of female students also reported that they were sexually harassed in public.

Many of the stories published on social media in Vietnam in the past two days seem to show a pattern. The perpetrators often targetted young interns who are still in school or female employees who are freshly minted from college.

Inexperienced, young, and in need of a job, the victims – who are also facing a culture that got influenced heavily by Confucianism with very strict standards when it comes to gender roles – would incline to choose to quit their jobs and internalize their emotional wounds rather than speaking up against the perpetrator.

Yet, now, there is hope with the latest case involving the Tuổi Trẻ’s intern.

In the past two days, Facebook statuses have shown an influx of stories of similar experiences and offers of support.

People published allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct against the Director of the largest legal online research company in the country, Thư viện Pháp luật (The law library) online. This story again was a rumor among the legal professionals but never brought to broader public attention.

Female activists in the country already start calling on people to use the hashtag #MeToo. And while it is true that we still have to continue looking out for development, it is not too early to say that #MeToo has made an important breakthrough in Vietnam where many have begun to say, Vietnam needs #MeeToo now.

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From Nguyễn Văn Đài’s April 5, 2018 Trial – What Constitutes “Overthrowing the People’s Government” in Vietnam?

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April 5, 2018 | Nguyễn Văn Đài – probably one of the most prominent dissidents in Vietnam for almost two decades – received one of the harshest sentences for political dissent in recent years.

A court in Hanoi, Vietnam sentenced Nguyễn Văn Đài to 15 years imprisonment and 5 years probation under house arrest. His colleagues tried and convicted in the same case, also received equally harsh sentences. Nguyễn Trung Tôn, 12 years imprisonment and 3 years probation; Trương Minh Đức, 12 years imprisonment and 3 years probation; Nguyễn Bắc Truyển, 11 years imprisonment and 3 years probation; Lê Thu Hà, 9 years imprisonment and 2 years probation; Phạm Văn Trội, 7 years imprisonment and 1 year probation.

The 48-year old former attorney was among the first group of Vietnamese lawyers who took up political cases in the early 2000’s and defended dissidents, as well as those who were persecuted for exercising religious freedom.

Đài was the type of lawyer who would defend those accused of the very same crime he is facing today: “conducting activities to overthrow the people’s government.”

This crime is infamously known among international human rights groups and foreign embassies as the Article 79 of Vietnam’s Penal Code 1999.

While carrying capital punishment as the maximum sentence, Article 79 however, utterly lacks a clear, well-defined description of conducts which would constitute a person’s criminal liability, and as such, making it impossible for people to cry out mea culpa.

The law only states that “a person conducting activities to form or participate in any organization to overthrow the people’s government shall be punished as follows,” and then immediately dwells into specifying the sentencing guidelines from twelve years, twenty years, life imprisonment, up to the death sentence for the main perpetrator, and five to fifteen years for those who act as accomplices.

Because of this ambiguity per se in its language, Article 79 had faced strong criticism from the international community over the years, especially during the last Vietnam’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in January 2014.

Critics continue pointing out, that along with Articles 88 and 258 of the Penal Code, the government has used these criminal provisions almost exclusively against political dissidents and pro-democracy activists, taking advantage of the vague language of these codes to criminalize peaceful protests and suppress political dissent.

Facing such international pressure during the 2014 UPR, Vietnam agreed to amend Article 79, and they did, in 2015.

However, except for some minor, cosmetic changes such as the number of the code section from 79 to 109, and adding a category for those who are “preparing to commit the crime” with the punishment ranging from one to five years imprisonment, the remaining of the “new” Article 109 is taken verbatim from Article 79.

In short, we still have to look to actual cases to define which conducts would constitute the crime of “overthrowing the people’s government” in Vietnam, and in Đài’s case today, such conducts would be:

“Opening an office, having a website to operate, developing a ‘shortening manifesto’, having a structured organization, having internal and external affairs strategy, operating to increase membership, capacity, …; abusing the right to promote ‘democracy, human rights,’ ‘civil society’ to conceal the objectives of the Brotherhood for Democracy … waiting for the appropriate timing to openly operate in opposition of the government through changing the political structure in Vietnam, developing ‘pluralism with multiple parties’ and a government with ‘separation of powers’ to overthrow the people’s government while using a private sector economy as its basis.”

The above paragraph was an excerpt taken from the Conclusion section at page 10 of the 16-page long indictment issued on December 31, 2017 against Nguyễn Văn Đài and his five colleagues, Lê Thu Hà (who was arrested together with Đài on December 16, 2015), Nguyễn Bắc Truyển, Nguyễn Trung Tôn, Trương Minh Đức, and Phạm Văn Trội.

The new Penal Code of Vietnam was not taken effective until January 1, 2018. Thus, Đài and his colleagues were charged with Article 79 of the old code.

Nguyễn Văn Đài has never shied away from his political ambitions and his outspoken criticism of the current regime, especially regarding the political monopoly the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) has over the country.

In 2006, Đài openly called for the establishment of other political parties and forming political opposition to challenge the VPC’s ruling. According to a research on Vietnam’s democratization advocates conducted by the Australian scholar, Benedict J. Tria Kerkvliet, Nguyễn Văn Đài would fall under the category of those who chose to confront the regime head-on.

He holds a firm personal belief that every Vietnamese people do have the intellectual capacity and enough knowledge to participate in a pluralistic form of governance with multiple parties.

He previously wrote that Vietnam had had other political parties in the past, during the 1930’s and the early independent days from 1945-1946. Notably, in the South of Vietnam – before the fall of Saigon – political parties were very active. Moreover, Đài always believes that the current Constitution supports the formation of other political parties besides the VPC.

His direct challenge to the ruling party’s power resulted in a conviction for “propaganda against the state” under Article 88 in 2007, where he served four years in prison and was released in 2011.

Coincidentally, 2011, the year in which Đài was released, also marked the beginning of an unprecedented rise of the young pro-democracy and pro-human rights movement in Vietnam.

Starting in the summer of 2011, Vietnamese people – especially youths – swarmed the streets of major cities such as Hanoi and Saigon, protesting against China’s aggression due to the incident involving the cutting of Vietnam’s Binh Minh vessel’s cable cab in the South China Sea.

People organized protests through Facebook’s pages, and statuses, calling for massive turnouts all over the country like never seen before, at least not anything like that had happened since after the Vietnam War was over in 1975.

At first, the government allowed the protests, but when faced with thousands of youths on the streets, they quickly decided to change course and started cracking down on peaceful protesters. Yet this very conduct of the government had opened doors to another era of civil disobedience in Vietnam: the birth of the independent civil society organizations (CSO) movement inside the country. Many of the protesters on those streets in Vietnam six years ago are now the prominent faces of the pro-democracy movement.

The undeterred Nguyễn Văn Đài quickly caught on to this phenomenon and organized his own CSO – the Brotherhood for Democracy (which got named in the indictment) – continuing pushing for political changes through challenging the one-party rule. A person with charisma, Đài again rose to the occasion, becoming the familiar face during those meetings with foreign officials and diplomats from many embassies in Hanoi.

And that was documented in his December 2017 indictment as well, where it detailed how he was able to connect with foreign institutions and individuals to secure funding for his CSO – activities that are normal for any non-governmental organization around the world. The indictment even named diplomats from the U.S. and Germany as people who acted as his references.

It also worths noting that almost two years ago, Vietnam’s National Assembly attempted to pass a law on association with restrictions on receiving “foreign funds.” However, such efforts failed when faced with stern opposition from NGOs and CSOs from Vietnam, both registered and non-registered.

Thus, except for the indictment in Đài’s case making it out to be a crime, Vietnam’s laws have yet to prohibit NGOs to receive foreign financial aids.

But the reality remains, that as of right now, Vietnam still only has one political party – the Communist Party – and Nguyễn Văn Đài and his colleagues’ latest trial and conviction demonstrate that any efforts aiming at forming a political opposition would constitute conduct punishable by very long and harsh sentences.

In December 2008, many people gasped as China sentenced Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Liu Xiaobo, to 11 years for “suspicion of subversion against the state.”

Now almost ten years later, in April 2018, using an eerily similar charge against Nguyễn Văn Đài and his colleagues, Vietnam has demonstrated that it too, does not yield to international pressure and would even go the extra miles in sending political dissents to prisons for even longer terms than its communist big brother.

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