Vietnam Rings In 2019 with More Restrictions on Citizens’ Freedoms

Quynh-Vi Tran
Quynh-Vi Tran

During the last week of December 2018, Vietnam’s state-owned newspapers flooded the country’s social media with articles on rules and tips for writing and blogging in a new era of internet usage, all in preparation for the 2018 Cybersecurity Law taking effect on New Year’s Day.

In the days leading to the country’s cyber D-day, on December 30, 2018, with the headlines “How to Write to Express your Political Opinion on the Internet without Violating the Law?” Tuoi Tre online newspaper essentially summarized the ultimate paradox for people living under one of the most repressive countries around the world.

While the article elicits opinions from a wide range of interviewees, from intellects and heads of certain IT firms to regular social media users, they all repeat the same government’s mantra: practice self-censorship and avoid criticism of the Party and the state, so that you can have the right to express yourself.

Like the headlines itself, the “opinion” of the group of people interviewed in this article seems to be blissfully ignorant of the international standards for freedom of expression, in particular, Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, where a government not only cannot criminalize people for stating their political opinions but is also not allowed to censor them.

It is not surprising that the article of Tuoi Tre did not consider critical opinions of the government to be worthy of political opinions and instead endorsed the same old government’s propaganda which had been recycled throughout the past seven decades, that one could have an opinion about anything in Vietnam, except those that criticize the Party and the government. After all, all newspapers in the country are considered to be the arms and legs of that propaganda machine.

Another leading newspaper in Vietnam, Thanh Nien, also published an article on December 29, 2018, warning people to steer clear of “The 14 Ways to Violate the New Cybersecurity Law” with the first paragraph declaring the use of social media “to gather and call on other people to incite disorder” among the prohibited acts. The language of this paragraph is nothing new; it is the same as Decree 38 which has been used for regulating public gatherings in Vietnam, an ordinance that legal experts in the country have repeatedly questioned its constitutionality since its issuance in 2005.

Praising the accomplishments of the Party and the state, as well as reciting their propaganda, are not only welcome but also considered to be parts of the Vietnamese journalists’ obligations according to the “Code of Conduct” published by the Vietnamese Journalists Association (VJA).

The VJA, however, is an organization formed by the government according to its Media and Press Law of 2016 (link in Vietnamese), and these obligations are statutory. The Vietnamese authorities may think that by legislating journalists’ conducts, it would give them the appearance of a society that respects the rule of law. However, in reality, perhaps the only thing such laws could further demonstrate would probably be the systematic abuse of press freedom in the country.

Nevertheless, the Vietnamese government is now ready to roll out the “code of model behaviors” for people who use social media in the new year, and the VJA has taken an extra step this past week with the announcement of its “Eight Rules for Journalists to Behave on Social Media” on December 25, 2018.

Among others, most notably is the requirement that journalists are not to “post any news, articles, pictures, or audio recordings on social media or repost speech and opinions in opposition to the way, policy, and guideline of the Party or the State.”

Not stopping at that, the new rules for journalists according to the VJA also require that while online, they are not going to “comment, give an opinion or share any information which contains the purpose of inciting or engaging others to react negatively, as well as those issues that are political, economic, cultural, societal, relating to defense security, and external affairs,…with complexity and sensitivity which need consensus as well as positive and constructive observation and behaviors for society”.

Effectively, the new arbitrarily worded regulations for journalists, when being applied together with the new cybersecurity bill, could mean that the sharing of any information considered to be critical of a proposed law, such as the still pending draft bill on the Special Economic Zones which ignited the nationwide protests in June 2018 for example, may be deemed illegal and criminal by the government starting in 2019.

At the same time, state-owned media in Vietnam also welcomed the news of the CP-TPP (Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership) taking effect at the end of December 2018. In the new year, Vietnam continues to push for the EU-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement to be ratified by the EU Parliament in March 2019. Both of these trade agreements demand serious improvement on the human rights situation in Vietnam, directly and indirectly.

However, in 2018, The 88 Project reported:

– Vietnam arrested 103 people (up from 43 in 2017)
– 120 activists were tried
– At least 22 of those who tried were females
– 35 had known religious affiliations
– 11 were sentenced to between 10 and 14 years
– Two received the sentence of between 15 and 19 years
– One person, Le Dinh Luong, was sentenced to 20 years

In total, 210 people are serving jail sentences for their peaceful activism in Vietnam with 19 more await trial.

Whether the Vietnamese government will yield to international pressure and improve its human rights records, or follows through and starts enforcing the new suppressive law on bloggers and journalists in 2019, the message from the activists’ community is unanimous: they will continue to write and express their opinions regardless. Before the Cybersecurity Law of 2018, Vietnam already has enough penal codes to send their political dissidents to prison for a long time.

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Quynh-Vi Tran

Quynh-Vi was a litigation lawyer in California before becoming a democracy advocate and journalist in 2015. She is also a strong advocate for abolishing the death penalty.