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Freedom of expression

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



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.

Free Press

Freedom Of Speech In Vietnam: Where Government Is The Boss



Photo: Loan Pham/Vietnam Thoi Bao

In ASEAN, there are still stories of the independent media that will give us inspiration and encouragement. Here are the two examples of those stories.

First story

Two years ago, a tuk-tuk took a group of international journalists along alleys full of twists and turns in Chiang Mai, Thailand, before stopping in front of a private radio station. 

Uncle Sangmuang Mangkorn, the colleague and guide, then gave the journalists a tour around the radio station and showed us the facilities of MAP Radio. 

MAP stands for the Migrant Assistance Programme, and it is a foundation that runs several community radio stations in support of migrant workers in Chiang Mai and Mae Sot.

Most people have a preconception of radio stations being quite large and full of modern equipment and technology. Yet, the MAP Radio office is far from this ideal. Inside were just two small transmitting rooms and two employees working on a live program. This was all they had.

Warmly referred to as “Uncle” Sangmuang, he and some of his close friends founded MAP Radio in 1966 when an influx of Myanmar migrants came to Chiang Mai to work at construction sites. Myanmar workers frequently got into trouble in Thailand, and they had no avenues available to access information that would be essential for the duration of their stay. MAP Radio operates both as a radio station focusing on labor rights, health, education and an organization to help and campaign for migrant workers. MAP Radio also broadcasts in some of the workers’ mother tongues.

A recording room at MAP Radio – Migrant Assistance Programme. Photo: MAP Radio/Facebook

Second Story

In 2018, Malaysiakini, a 4-language online newspaper in Malaysia, issued a publication concerning deaths in police stations. The paper discovered that only one-fourth of these deaths captured public attention. Hence, the paper created a separate web page to gather information about these deaths, teach basic ways to protect oneself from abuse by authorities, and share the experiences of victims under arrest.

In 2021, Malaysiakini was fined RP $500,000 (more than USD $120,000) by a court in Malaysia on charges that readers’ comments on its website resulted in a decline of public trust in the judiciary system. Immediately after the court’s ruling, Malaysiakini called on its readers to make donations to help it pay the fine. Within a few hours, they had collected more than the amount needed.

Compared to the rest of Southeast Asia and the world, freedom of speech and free press in Vietnam has a quite different fate.

Vietnam: When the government acts as the big boss

In 2018, a Vietnamese activist, Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, was sentenced to 10 years in prison for collecting information about unexplained deaths in police stations. After spending two years in jail, she was exiled to the United States for political reasons.

Fast forward towards the year 2020, it was a terrible one for the press in Vietnam as mainstream media continued to operate under government control. 

Vietnam’s independent press development has taken a step backward during the past two years. We now do not have Bao Sach (The Clean Newspaper) anymore because its founding members have been arrested in late 2020 and early 2021. 

Three members of the Independent Journalists Association of Vietnam, journalist Pham Doan Trang, land rights activist Can Thi Theu, and her two sons, together with many others, were also detained in 2020 and 2021. At some of their trials, heavy sentences were handed out. 

Vietnam imprisoned all of them for speaking out against abuses by the government and participating in activities that displeased the authorities.

In a few months, Chung Hoang Chuong, the owner of a SIM card shop in Ninh Kieu Town, Can Tho, will complete his 18-month sentence. He was arrested in early 2020 for posting comments concerning the Dong Tam incident. The final post on his Facebook account attracted around 1,400 comments, many of which criticized him for his daring anti-state viewpoints.

The government uses penal charges against people who exercise their right of freedom of speech in Vietnam when it feels that that such speech negatively affects the interests of the Vietnamese Communist Party. In these charges, the authorities always regarded the Party’s interests as the people’s; when the Party’s interests are compromised, so are the people’s.

From left, Pham Chi Dung, Nguyen Tuong Thuy, and Le Huu Minh Tuan – three members of the Vietnamese Independent Journalists Association of Vietnam, convicted according to Article 117 of the Penal Code. Photo: Luat Khoa.

The VCP always regurgitates the idea that the people are masters of Vietnam. But in reality, the Party and the government behave like they are the bosses of the people. At a moment’s notice, they are ready to punish a particular civilian if he/she criticizes them. Here, the VCP shows its true colors; party leaders are the true masters of the land and not a government whose primary responsibility is to serve the people.

In a particular business, the owner has the right to punish or dismiss some workers since he holds ownership of the company. However, Vietnam is not owned by the Party; ownership of this land belongs to us, the people.

In Myanmar, the military regime has controlled the country for a long time. Following the transfer to a civilian government, the military, by default, accounts for 25 percent of seats in the National Assembly. Nonetheless, the central and local governments should be run by civilian leaders.

The political system in Vietnam is similar, if not worse, than the situation in  Myanmar; replace the term “Myanmar junta” with “one-party regime” to see these similarities. The National Assembly, the courts, the People’s Procuracy, and the central and local authorities are under the control of VCP members. Even in elections, the Party handpicks candidates to ensure the Party’s continued existence and dominance. Such an administration leaves the people with no other option than obedience.

Side effects of controlling the press

Have you ever wondered how one gets daily news and information about Vietnam? He or she may listen to the radio in the morning, reads online papers in the afternoon, and watches TV or follows social media after work in the evening. In Vietnam, except for social media platforms, all other sources of information are controlled by the State.

A civilian reads a Party newspaper in Hanoi. Photo: AFP.

Imagine for a moment that you live in a neighborhood where residents can buy groceries at only one store. Whatever the store is selling will decide what you eat each day. If the commodities are plentiful and diverse, your family can be assured that they will receive proper nutrition. However, if what is being sold is neither nutritious nor varied, you are left with no other choice than to accept what the store has available. In other words, your family’s health and yours depend entirely on what the store owner has for sale.

Now, let’s visualize that there are lots of stores in your neighborhood. In case you dislike what’s available in one, you can go to another instead. Better products will be available to you since competition exists among the stores to provide the best goods and services. They respect your demands because satisfying their customers’ needs means they get more enormous profits.

Controlling the press is similar to allowing people to do their shopping at only one store. For decades, Vietnamese authorities have dictated what people should know and what they should not;  they have decided which media outlets are permitted to operate, how they should function, and which types of news are not allowed to be released. This whole mechanism determines what information you can get and how you can obtain it.

Thus, the responsibility falls on an independent press to become the best way for information to reach the people. An ordinary civilian has no time to look into matters that don’t personally affect his or her life. Take, for example, the suspicious construction of toll booths, a stretch of forest cleared and made into a golf course, the sale of counterfeit medicines, corrupt government officials, the misallocation of the national budget, and the troubles in reforming the education system. For all these things to reach the ears of the masses, we need the involvement of the free press. Only when journalists are free from the risk of persecution and imprisonment can they provide this critical information.

Regrettably, each of us has been forced to do our shopping at the only one store for a tremendously long time. Even worse, we dare not speak about our need for information because it is too dangerous. Some of us do not even know what information we need in the first place.

Without proper access to information, the people are robbed of their right to make counter-arguments, and they become increasingly less and less able to make their voices heard. Eventually, they relinquish their own land’s mastership and become puppets of those who hold the strings.

This article was written in Vietnamese by Tan Thanh and was previously published in the Luat Khoa Magazine on April 24, 2021.

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Freedom of expression

Reporters Without Borders Calls For The Release Of Pham Doan Trang



Pham Doan Trang. Photo courtesy: Thinh Nguyen

On April 7, 2021, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) released a press statement condemning the arrest of jailed Vietnamese journalist Pham Doan Trang

Phan Doan Trang, co-founder and editor of the online magazines The Vietnamese and Luât Khoa, and a recipient of the 2019 RSF Press Freedom Prize for Impact, was arrested at her home on the night of October 6, 2020. She was taken away by plainclothes policemen and has not been heard from since She has been denied access to a lawyer and her family has also been unable to contact her. Currently, she faces up to 20 years in prison under Article 117 of the Vietnamese Penal Code, under the charge of engaging in “anti-state propaganda”. 

Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk, says: “The Vietnamese Communist Party’s current leadership… needs to understand that history will hold them to account for the crackdown on press freedom …. They can save face by freeing Pham Doan Trang and all of the other unjustly detained journalists.”

This is not the first time RSF has demanded her release. On October 7, 2020, just one day after her arrest, it published its first statement which echoes much of the same sentiments here. It has also launched an international awareness campaign to fight for her cause. 

Support from Other RSF Laureates 

Several other RSF awardees have called for Phan Doan Trang’s immediate and unconditional release. They have also released several videos in various social media outlets to show their support for her, and to help bring this situation to the attention of the international community. 

Tomasz Piatek, a Polish journalist and an RSF prize recipient in 2017, addressed Vietnam’s leaders:, “I am asking you to release my friend from prison immediately and stop harassing and tormenting her for writing the truth. If you want to present yourself to the world as politicians and leaders of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, you must immediately stop harassing your citizens and give your citizens the right to the truth.”

Swati Chaturvedi, an Indian journalist and Reporters Without Borders prize awardee in 2018, said, “RSF stands for the fight of all journalists. Please help and speak out for my colleague, my Vietnamese colleague Pham Doan Trang right now.”

Can Dündar, a Turkish journalist, documentary filmmaker and 2016 RSF laureate, similarly asked that the Vietnamese authorities release Phan Doan Trang and to respect the freedom of the media.

Inday Espina-Varona, a Filipina journalist and awardee of RSF’s Prize for Independence in 2018, stated that Pham Doan Trang “has been charged with disseminating information that opposed the state of Vietnam… [it is] every journalist and citizen’s obligation to criticise and when necessary to oppose policies and actions inimical to the welfare and rights of people… it is also the duty of journalists and citizens wherever we are in the world to stand up when those who seek to do the right thing are battered for their efforts.”

Statement from the Publication: 

The Vietnamese joins Reporters Without Borders and our other international allies in demanding for the expedient release of Pham Doan Trang. The trumped-up charges against her are clearly false and the only thing she is guilty of is providing Vietnamese citizens with accurate and independent information free from the manipulation and misdirection of the Vietnamese government and its selfish misguided agenda.

The fight for freedom, democracy, and a better tomorrow for Vietnam continues and we at The Vietnamese will do our part to see this through till the end. 

To show your support for this cause, kindly consider signing this petition for the swift release of our co-founder, colleague, and friend. 

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Freedom of expression

Vietnamese Stand-up Comedian Condemns National Newspaper For “Defamation and Humiliation”



One week ago, followers of Dua Leo – one of Vietnam’s most prominent stand-up comedians – weren’t expecting him to release a “lawsuit reaction” video.

The incident resulted from an article published in Nhan Dan (The People), a Party mouthpiece, on January 8, 2021. The article, which was titled “Disguised as spreading knowledge to distort and undermine the nation’s image,” was by a writer named Viet Quang, and it targeted Dua Leo for his vlogs and videos published on his Youtube channel. 

That article is seen as part of a campaign to delegitimize and clamp down on influential opposition voices as the Party ramps up for its 13th National Party Congress.

Mr. Nguyen Phuc Gia Huy, also known by his stage name Dua Leo, in one of his vlogs. Photo courtesy: screenshot.

The stand-up comedian and his journey

Nguyen Phuc Gia Huy, commonly known by his stage name Dua Leo, which means cucumber in Vietnamese, is a Vietnamese stand-up comedian. He first came across stand-up comedy after watching one of Pablo Francisco’s videos; Francisco is an American stand-up comedian famous for his voice impersonating skills. Having graduated from the University of Economics with a bachelor’s degree in foreign trade, Mr. Huy had worked for several companies before deciding that he wanted to be a stand-up comedian.

Being a unique performer in a relatively new comedy field, there’s much room for this young talent to rise. But unlike his fellow counterparts, Dua Leo embarked on a different journey: using comedy as an alternative method to raise people’s awareness of social issues and tangible problems. He also created content for various topics, including history, science, politics, and even mental health. For that reason, Mr. Huy touted his role as being similar to that of a chef who cooks and serves people delicious meals, in his case, creating and spreading useful knowledge.

Dua Leo touted himself a “chef,” who “cooks and serves” useful knowledge to other people. Photo courtesy: screenshot.

Funny, informative, and approachable, Dua Leo’s videos quickly drew a large number of viewers and subscribers, mostly young people who are aware of the current situation and who are eagerly pushing for systemic change in Vietnam. Currently, Dua Leo’s Facebook fanpage and Youtube channel have over one million followers and 700,000 subscribers, respectively.

No mercy for opposition voices

Despite being an influential icon for the young, Mr. Huy is not particularly favored by the authorities.

This is not the first time the comedian has provoked the ire of the government. 

In 2016, he was first summoned by Ho Chi Minh city police after claiming in one of his videos that “there’s no freedom of speech in Vietnam.” After the incident, Mr. Huy made a video addressing his fans, under the stage name Dua Leo, reassuring them that nothing would stop him from doing what he is doing now. “I just want to deliver a simple message in this video: I’m just a comedian, as I always am, and my main goal is to gain [as many] views and likes for my videos [as possible],” he sarcastically joked. “[And] my secondary goal is as important as my main goal, [and that] is to make Vietnam a better country.”

Dua Leo raised concerns about the “National Cybersecurity Law”, which went into effect in 2019, expressing the fear that it would be used to suppress opposition voices. Photo courtesy: screenshot.

The shaming in Nhan Dan is another warning from the government, aimed at those who refuse to follow Party guidelines when speaking on social media.

The author of the Nhan Dan article accused Mr. Huy of “faking the activity of spreading knowledge to obtain illegitimate donations with illicit intentions,” together with “colluding with overseas Vietnamese and foreign-based Vietnamese language news outlets –  which have unfavorable views towards the Vietnamese Communist Party, government, and the people of Vietnam.”

On top of that, the writer also sourly slammed Mr. Huy for “being discontented” with the country’s current situation, accusing him of being “delusional of self abilities and knowledge,” or “dumb” and “child-minded.” Even worse, the author attempted to humiliate the comedian, claiming that “he’s popularly admired for his confident and eloquent manner, despite [his] physical disabilities.”

Notwithstanding being one of the biggest and fastest growing markets for social networks, there is little free space for dissenting opinions in Vietnam. Social networking sites such as Facebook and Youtube, which served mainly as “non-censored” platforms for local dissidents to voice their opinions in the country, are often under strict government scrutiny

Standing up for justice

Nevertheless, in order to deal with the powerful Propaganda Department that sets its own rules, the only way to fight back is to play by their rules.

In one of his latest moves, Mr. Huy announced that he had hired a law firm to file a lawsuit for “defamation and humiliation,” demanding apologies from the newspaper as well as that the article be taken down.

The lawsuit concluded that the article was entirely based on personal assumptions without any concrete or fact-based evidence. Furthermore, it argued that the writer had falsely accused Mr. Huy of criminal wrongdoings, without any court judgement or going through any legal proceedings.

In his reaction video, Dua Leo constantly emphasized that this move was not a tit-for-tat response, but rather a so-called legal “case study” for people: everyone is equal under the law, therefore we should seek legal protections even when justice appears not to be on our side. And more importantly, he reaffirmed, everyone is innocent until proven guilty.

As of January 26th, Nhan Dan newspaper had further published two sequences, on January 23rd and 24th, respectively. These two articles, which threatened Mr. Huy to “turn back before it is too late,” are nothing if not a retaliation move after the comedian had decided to file a lawsuit against its smearing campaign.

One day after the publication, on January 25th, Dua Leo had released another reaction video, repeatedly condemning the newspaper for “groundless and unjustified accusations.” At the same time, the comedian also publicly released all the lawsuit papers on his Facebook fan page, as he carried on legal processes. And at the bottom of his post, Dua Leo did not forget to use the hashtag #JusticeWillPrevail.

Dua Leo publicly released the legal papers on his Facebook fan page. Photo courtesy: Dua Leo Facebook fan page/ screenshot.

As many activists, journalists, and prisoners of conscience are still being locked up in jail for defending human rights and freedom of speech, the fight for justice is not yet over in Vietnam. 

And just like those brave people, Dua Leo is a stand-up comedian who is standing up for a good cause.

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