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Enhanced Restrictions In Cybersecurity Bill Shows Vietnam Is NOT Ready To Commit To EU-FTA’s Human Rights Clause

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Photo courtesy: Luật Khoa tạp chí

In recent days, the people in Vietnam, again and again, have proven that social media was the most effective platform to express their discontent with various social and political issues in the country.

Around the first week of May 2018, people’s outpoured anger over an appellate court’s decision which reduced the sentence for a convicted child molester had forced the country’s top court – the court of cassation – to swiftly responded and reaffirmed the original sentence.

And just this week, when citizens discovered that their National Assembly was going to pass a law to create three Special Economic Zones (SEZ) at Vân Đồn, Bắc Vân Phong, and Phú Quốc, they again took to Facebook to express their objection to the government’s plan. Then, they used the social media to organize the actual demonstration.

The call for a nationwide protest on one Facebook page received more than 160,000.00 shares and close to 140,000.00 reactions within days.

Social media has proven that it still is the most effective tool to disseminate information in Vietnam and to raise awareness on a variety of issues.

It was precisely seven years ago this summer that a nationwide anti-China’s aggression in the South China Sea – Vietnam’s East Sea – broke out because of a call to protest on Facebook by the page Nhật Ký Yêu Nước – Patriotic Diary.

Since 2011, social media has witnessed the emerging democracy movement in the country where it served as the birthplace of many independent civil society organizations, online newspapers, and media agencies.

With some current 30 million Facebook users in a recent statistics, neither the government or its people would underestimate the power of social media and Facebook in Vietnam.

In both of the recent incidents, the people’s power prevailed, at least for now.

By the early morning of June 9, 2018, the Vietnamese government officially announced the SEZ bill would be postponed until the fall session of the National Assembly.

However, it does not mean that the government is ready to throw in the towel.

Another bill is pending for approval by the National Assembly on June 12, 2018, and it is what would become the infamous Cybersecurity law with at least seven strikingly similar provisions when compares to China’s laws.

More concerning is the fact that these provisions are more than “copy and paste” paragraphs from China’s laws. They are in direct violation of international human rights standards.

Explicitly, in 2016, the Human Rights Council passed a resolution without a vote, to include an addition to Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, recognizing the right to Internet access is a human right.

The goals and objectives of this Cybersecurity bill will violate Article 19 because it gives the government and the police power to demand readily accessible information to all citizens’ Internet usage data whenever they want and without any due process.

Internet service providers will act as informants for the government, voluntarily give up users’ activities to police.

Foreign corporations such as Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, and so forth, will most likely comply with Vietnam’s request to have their servers – which contain Vietnamese users’ data – to be stationed in Vietnam and must have an operating office located inside the country.

It would mean all of these companies’ stored data within Vietnam’s national territory will have to be given up to police once they demand it.

The European Union, its parliament, and its member countries should take careful notes of this Cybersecurity bill when they consider the ratification of the EU-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement (EU-FTA) in early 2019.

As in all EU trade agreements, the human rights clause have been maintained by EU officials and politicians as an essential condition, and that they reserve the power to suspend the agreement if there are going to be gross violations.

The Chair of the European Parliament’s Committee for International Trade, Bernd Lange, during his visit to Hanoi in September 2017, even declared that human rights and labor rights are at the center of the continued discussions about the FTA between Vietnam and EU.

If this Cybersecurity bill is passed, it will very well be in contradictions with the human rights clause of the EU-FTA. The U.S. government, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch all seem to have taken this view.

The U.S. Embassy in Hanoi urged Vietnam in their statement issued late June 8, 2018, not to pass this bill, citing concerns that such law “may not be consistent with Vietnam’s international trade commitments.”

At the same time, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch both declared that if the Cybersecurity bill is passed and goes into effect, it would violate Vietnamese people’s freedom of expression and their privacy.

Some Vietnamese are worrying that they might have spent too much time and efforts on the SEZ bill and neglect the one on Cybersecurity, letting it slips through.

Undoubtedly, the main reason that many Vietnamese were willing to take their anger from Facebook to the streets regarding the SEZ bill and in a certain extent, direct such outrage at their government this past week, was the China factor.

The people believed that the law would give Chinese investors and corporations an advantage as to the future development in those three locations.

Tensions between Vietnam and China are historical facts that no regime could re-write. It does not help either that in recent years, China’s rising aggression in the East Sea would continue to remind the younger generations in Vietnam that China has been, still is, and will be a threat to their nation’s sovereignty.

“Bringing the elephants home to demolish your ancestors’ grave” – an idiom that has been recited over and over again online during the past week – is probably the image many Vietnamese have in mind when they protest the SEZ bill.

If the Cybersecurity bill passes, the government can construe this very phrase (when use to object any of its decision – such as the SEZ bill this time) as “information which propagandizes, misrepresents, and defames the People’s government” according to its Article 15, and that will be the reason for people to find themselves in trouble with the laws.

Freedom of expression

Vietnam: Lawyer Disbarred For Speaking Ill Of Regime and The Communist Party

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Lawyer Vo An Don. Photo credits: Tuoi Tre newspaper.

“I have lost my license to practice law forever, with no apparent recourse available,” Vo An Don, one of Vietnam’s most well-known lawyers in recent years, lamented on Facebook on April 9, 2019. Last week, a high court in Danang ruled that the minister of justice’s decision to affirm his disbarment in 2018 remained effective and final.

The 42-year-old lawyer from Phu Yen province, however, is widely recognized for his fierce advocacy. In the past five years, Don took on cases involving some of the more popular political dissidents, such as blogger Mother Mushroom. But he gained the most public attention when he represented the family of Ngo Thanh Kieu,  a man who died while in custody after being beaten by the police in 2014. Don had demonstrated tireless efforts in bringing those who committed police brutality to justice in Kieu’s case. Yet on November 26, 2017, he was disciplined by his provincial bar association, and his bar license was taken away. In April 2019, the People’s High Court in Danang sided with the disciplinary decision and let the decision stayed.

According to Tuoi Tre newspaper, the reason for the disciplinary action was because of Don’s “abuse of democratic freedoms to write and to give interviews to foreign press and broadcasters to defame lawyers, the prosecutorial bodies, the (Communist) Party and the State of Vietnam with the intent to incite, propagandize, and misrepresent the truth which had negatively affected the reputation of the Party, the State, the prosecutorial bodies, and other Vietnamese lawyers.”

The Phu Yen Provincial Bar Association’s decision to disbar him came only a few days before the appeal trial of Mother Mushroom, which was on November 30, 2017. Don stated at the time in an interview with BBC-Vietnamese that such a decision was probably politically motivated.

It was not the first time, however, that his local bar association had attempted to discipline Vo An Don. In another interview with RFA in 2014, Don already disclosed that the Phu Yen Provincial Bar Association had tried, unsuccessfully, to disbar him a few times during his representation of the family of Ngo Thanh Kieu. But Don was unfazed and continued with the case, successfully bringing the offending officers to justice.

The case of Ngo Thanh Kieu was probably the first one in recent years where the court convicted a group of police officers for causing death to a suspect in custody. Public opinion, however, was split about the sentences handed down to the former police. Some people thought that the jail terms were too light as the longest one was only a five-year-imprisonment. At the same time, many people also saw Vo An Don as the lawyer who fought for the people’s rights and stood against what they perceived as a corrupt system.

The unintended popularity could be the root of the troubles that later followed the lawyer, who practiced law in one of the poorest areas in Vietnam. Don is often dubbed the “farmer lawyer” in social media because he still has to continue farming to support his family. Practicing law in an honest way, he said, cost him opportunities to “get rich” because he refused to be part of the widespread corruption in Vietnam’s judiciary. His popularity and his candid words about the profession together made him an unpopular person among his fellow attorneys. His allegation of corruption among lawyers was one of the statements that cost him his bar license, as reported by The Law newspaper in Ho Chi Minh City on May 24, 2018.

After the Phu Yen Provincial Bar Association issued its disciplinary decision on November 26, 2017, Vo An Don petitioned the Vietnam Bar Federation in December 2017 for a review.  Over 100 Vietnamese lawyers signed a petition asking the Federation to stand by its member’s freedom of expression and stated that the disciplinary action would be a dangerous precedent for the law profession. The Federation still rejected his petition on May 21, 2018.

Don continued to appeal his case with the Ministry of Justice later last year, but the minister of justice also decided against him.

Finally, in December 2018, Don initiated a lawsuit against the administrative decision to uphold the disciplinary action by the minister of justice. But as stated, the court system also did not side with him and effectively allowed the disbarment to remain in effect. The high court in Danang agreed that the dismissal of Don’s case by a lower court was proper.

Both courts had reasoned that the minister of justice’s decision to uphold the disbarment was done within a professional and social organization – the Vietnam Bar Federation. Such a decision did not fall under the categories of subject matters that could be decided in a lawsuit against an administrative order.

At this time, even Vo An Don does not seem to think that there could be any other recourse for him. In the meantime, Don’s case has raised sufficient concerns about the freedom of expression of lawyers in Vietnam and whether their human rights will continue to be subjected to professional disciplinary actions.

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English Speakers In Vietnam Got A Taste Of Censorship Over An Article On Pollution

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Screen caption of the removed article on VN Express on February 21, 2019.

February 20, 2019, a few foreigners living both inside and outside of Vietnam were sharing the news that an English article published on the site VN Express was taken down before they could read it.

Some of them suspected that it was the state’s censorship or even the beginning of the enforcement of the new cybersecurity law.

As of press time, still, the link is not working.

The article was about the lone man’s trip across the country of a Vietnamese photographer, Nguyen Viet Hung, to raise awareness on marine pollution in Vietnam using what he knows best, photography.

The story of Hung was becoming quite popular in Vietnam during recent days.

He is a well-known photographer whose trip was published on social media and a few newspapers, including one that is under the ownership of the Ministry of Public Security, Cảnh Sát Toàn Cầu online (Global Police Force).

The 3,260 km long journey, dubbed “The Green Journey” on social media, was documented by Hung and his photography skills

He began his trip in August 2018.

Along the way, he was documenting the danger of improper waste disposal, especially plastic waste, and its effects on the environment.

There was an incident where Hung said he felt scared for his life when taking a picture of a truck dumping trash into the ocean because he thought the truck driver was calling more people to come over and intimidate him.

The story was well-received by the public because it raised concerns over an urgent matter that all Vietnamese people face daily: how to deal with garbage disposal in the country.

Marine pollution and pollution, in general, have gained more attention among the public because the amount of trash being disposed in Vietnam on a daily basis is quite alarming.

In 2018, Vietnamese people became even more concerned when a report placed their country among the top five ocean polluters regarding plastic waste became viral.

Like many other censored topics in Vietnam, we could never fully understand why an article suddenly becomes “unavailable” when the web link stops working.

One may suspect that it was because the story placed equal responsibility on both the people and the state for marine pollution, where the failure of the garbage disposal system in Vietnam played a significant role.

Hung said in one of the Vietnamese articles, that while at Sa Ky Harbor in Quang Ngai Province, it was impossible for him to find a garbage can. As the result, all local residents living in the area would dump their trash directly into the waters which they also use for bathing and consuming.

Regardless of the reason, Nguyen Viet Hung’s photographs bring about a reality that both the Vietnamese people and their government must face: marine pollution in Vietnam is a code red issue where drastic measures, as well as immediate behavioral changes, must happen now.

Hung had put this succinctly in the only paragraph left from the taken-down article:

The farther I went, the more I realized that the environment in general and marine environment in particular of our country are being seriously destroyed. Most people are not aware of the scale of the problem, and this should change, Hung said.

A few photographs from Nguyen Viet Hung’s trip:

Plastic rubbish filled the land near a market place in Tuy Phong, Binh Thuan Province. Photo Courtesy: Nguyen Viet Hung.

Lacking proper garbage disposal, people dumped their trash directly into the ocean. Photo courtesy: Nguyen Viet Hung.

Children were playing near a creek filled with garbage. Photo courtesy: Nguyen Viet Hung.

A child was picking up near the seashore. Photo courtesy: Nguyen Viet Hung.

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Facebook’s Community Standards Continue to Hinder Activism in Vietnam

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Photo courtesy: martechtoday.com

For almost two months, a group of drivers in Vietnam continuously protested against a BOT (Build-Operate-Transfer) toll booth near Ho Chi Minh City for collecting illegal fees after its contractual time had expired.

According to the group, BOT An Suong was collecting fees illegally when their contract with the government for the placement of the booth had ended about 32 months ago.

The owner of the BOT claimed that they had built other transport projects in the area, and hence received the right to continue to collect fees.

Regardless of who is right and who is wrong about BOT An Suong, the drivers should be allowed to protest and used social media to broadcast their campaign.

However, an unlikely aide came to the BOT’s owner’s defense: Facebook.

This is not anything new.

In Vietnam, Facebook has faced allegations coming from activists that it repeatedly upheld requests (most likely by anonymous users and suspected government’s hired trolls) to shut down or suspend Vietnamese users’ accounts at the request of the authorities to suppress free speech.

One of the latest casualties was Facebooker Huynh Long who became well known in the past year and a half as someone leading the protests against wrongful BOTs, including the latest one, BOT An Suong.

The tactics used by Long and his fellow drivers have always been peaceful.

They just refused to pay when they were driving by BOT An Suong and demanded evidence proving that it could still collect toll fees. They would often live-stream and broadcast the encounters so that others could watch and show support.

During many of these encounters, it was the community’s support that kept the drivers safe when the BOT hired towing trucks and unknown groups of masked men to intimidate Long and his companions.

But last night, Facebook informed Long that his account would be suspended for 30 days.

He joined the increasingly long list of journalists, bloggers, and activists whose accounts have been either shut down or suspended by Facebook in the last six months.

Activist Hoang Dung’s account has been suspended so regularly that it became a known fact among the activists’ community that Facebook took action against him every time his account disappeared.

Freelance journalists who published misconducts committed by government’s officials like Le Nguyen Huong Tra and Truong Chau Huu Danh were also among the victims.

Tra’s account received a blue badge for verification, but that did not help when her account was suspended twice in September 2018.

What has caused the most frustration to the Vietnamese Facebook users probably is the fact that Facebook would only give out notice of suspension for violating its community standards without any further explanation.

The users would never know which “standard” they might have violated even when they appealed their cases.

Moreover, no one knows what the standards that Facebook is using in Vietnam are, or who is the third party’s fact-checker for them inside the country.

Attempts from the activists’ community to get these answers from Facebook had gone nowhere. At most, they received some evasive responses from Facebook that did not resolve the problem.

Unlike its neighbor, the Phillippines, where an independent newspaper – Rappler – is one of Facebook’s fact-checkers, the identities of fact-checkers in Vietnam remain a secret.

In the meanwhile, living in a country like Vietnam where there are already a handful of arbitrary and vague laws that could put one in prison for exercising their freedom of expression, the secretive and non-transparent conduct of Facebook easily angered the community.

It was not a coincidence that during July 2018, over one hundred thousand Facebook users in Vietnam were signing up on Minds – another social media platform – in just one weekend to make their point to Facebook.

With the new cybersecurity law enacted and took effect already in Vietnam, Facebook does face pressure from both the government and the 60 million users’ community.

Vietnam’s Minister of Information and Communications Nguyen Manh Hung had been quite upfront about the government’s desire to build Vietnam’s own social media platform, one that could compete and win over the market from Facebook.

Part of the main reason that many Vietnamese still rely on Facebook instead of Vietnam’s own Zalo or any other platform is the fact that it is an American product.

While it may surprise some foreigners, the preference for American made products is a known fact in Vietnam – the country that ranked No. 1 in finding the United States favorable in one PEW’s research in 2017.

Facebook is also benefiting from the U.S’ rule of law and its Bill of Rights where individual rights, including their right to privacy and free speech, are protected.

Whether Facebook will uphold these values is crucial to Vietnamese users.

Failing to demonstrate that it does and will continue to adhere to these democratic values and human rights, Facebook will no longer be attractive in Vietnam.

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