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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.

Freedom of expression

Two Human Rights Groups Issue Joint Statement Against Harassment of Independent Publishing House

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Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have condemned the Vietnamese government for their escalating harassment of an independent publishing house.

Liberal Publishing House, established February 14th, 2019, seeks “to promote human rights and freedom of information in Vietnam by printing and publishing books without censorship from the Vietnamese government”, in a mode similar to samizdat operations in former communist countries of Eastern Europe.

In a statement issued November 27th, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch stated that Vietnamese “police have harassed and intimidated dozens of people connected to the Liberal Publishing House […] in what appears to be a targeted campaign” against both the publishing house’s readers and workers.

The statement also describes a situation in which police “detained and allegedly tortured a man in custody on October 15 in Ho Chi Minh City, allegedly to force him to confess to working for the publisher. Police detained him for more than 12 hours, during which time he was repeatedly beaten until his nose bled. Since being released he has gone into hiding, fearful of re-arrest.”

The police harassment has been nationwide, striking the three major Vietnamese cities of Hanoi (north), Hue (center), and Ho Chi Minh City (south), as well as the central provinces of Quang Binh and Quang Tri, the south-central province of Phu Yen, and the southern province of Binh Duong. Readers have reportedly been called into police stations for questioning and forced to sign statements declaring they will no longer purchase books from Liberal Publishing House; workers have reportedly been ensnared in police traps while carrying out deliveries.

Liberal Publishing House has acknowledged the police harassment and issued to its readers a series of precautions to take when ordering books, as well as what and what not to say when confronted by police. It has also made available for free a digital copy of its book A Handbook for Families of Prisoners to inform readers of their rights and guide them through the legal process.

Liberal Publishing House’s other titles include Politics for the Common People, Non-Violent Resistance, and the English-language title Politics of a Police State. Dissident blogger Pham Doan Trang, who recently received the 2019 Press Freedom Prize for Impact from Reporters Without Borders in September, is one of the publishing house’s main contributors.

Although freedom of the press is guaranteed by Article 25 of the 2013 Vietnamese Constitution, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam is a one-party, authoritarian state that does not tolerate challenges to its power. It controls all official media and publishing houses in the country and regularly censors material that does not conform to sanctioned historical or political narratives. 

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In Prolific Day, Vietnam Sentences Six Dissidents to Prison for “Anti-state” Activities

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Nguyen Chi Vung (top), Pham Van Diep (middle), Vo Thuong Trung, Doan Viet Hoan, Ngo Xuan Thanh, and Nguyen Dinh Khue (bottom, left to right) . Photo sources: Kien Thuc, Binh An, and Nguoi Lao Dong newspaper, respectively. Composite photo created by Will Nguyen.


In a particularly damaging day for Vietnamese dissidents, six individuals were sentenced to a total of 26 years in prison for opposing the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam (SRV). The convictions on November 26, 2019 bookend an active month for Vietnamese security forces, who have arrested and convicted numerous individuals for their on- and offline “anti-state” activities. 

Nguyen Chi Vung, 38, was sentenced to six years in prison by a court in the southern Mekong Delta province of Bac Lieu. Vung was convicted under Article 117 of the 2015 Penal Code for “Making, storing, distributing or disseminating information, documents and articles against the SRV”. According to Reuters, Vung had “held 33 livestream sessions on Facebook ‘to share distorted information’ and ‘encourage people to participate in protests during national holidays’”.

Pham Van Diep, 54, was convicted under the same article, with a north-central Vietnamese court in Thanh Hoa sentencing him to nine years in prison and five years probation. His indictment stated that he had a nine-year history of expressing online dissent and that he made frequent Facebook posts criticizing the VCP leadership and SRV policies. According to Tuoi Tre newspaper, he had previously printed and distributed anti-SRV flyers in the Lao capital city of Vientiane. On June 28, 2016, Diep was arrested by Laotian authorities, tried in February of 2018, and sentenced to 21 months in prison for “using the territory of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic to oppose neighboring countries”. Lao authorities took him to the Vietnamese border one month after his trial, where he was allowed to re-enter Vietnam.

In Dong Nai, a province bordering the southern hub of Ho Chi Minh City, four individuals were convicted under Article 118 for “Disruption of security”. According to Vietnamese Human Rights Defenders, “[t]he four convicted were arrested on April 25, 2019, for their intention to participate in a peaceful demonstration scheduled on April 30 to mark the 34th anniversary of the fall of the US-backed Saigon regime”. Vo Thuong Trung, 42, and Doan Viet Hoan, 35, were each sentenced to three years in prison, while Ngo Xuan Thanh, 49, and Nguyen Dinh Khue, 41, each received 28 months.

The convictions of these six individuals in one day comes a little over a week after 43-year-old music teacher Nguyen Nang Tinh was sentenced to 11 years in prison and five years house arrest for violating Article 117. According to his lawyers, a Facebook account making anti-SRV posts used the same name as their client. However, they said the account did not, in fact, belong to him. Tinh was arrested May 29, 2019 and convicted on November 16 in the north-central province of Nghe An.

Last week also saw the high-profile arrest of Pham Chi Dung, a journalist with a doctorate in economics, and a founding chairman of the Independent Journalists Association of Vietnam. Dung, 53, is a former VCP member and is known for his incisive political and economic critiques of both the VCP and SRV. He has written for Voice of America, BBC, Radio Free Asia, NBC News, Nguoi Viet, and Asian Nikkei Review.

Dung’s arrest has been noted by the European Union and condemned by Reporters Without Borders, who hailed him as “an outspoken Vietnamese journalist and leading press freedom defender who for years has been trying to help create an open and informed civil society in Vietnam that is not controlled by its Communist Party.” He is currently being held at the Phan Dang Luu Detention Center in Ho Chi Minh City, one of two centers in the city where political dissidents are usually held while they are being investigated (the other being Chi Hoa Prison). He faces up to 12 years behind bars.

Although freedom of speech, press, and assembly are all guaranteed by Article 25 of the 2013 Vietnamese Constitution, the SRV is a one-party, authoritarian state that does not tolerate challenges to its power. It routinely arrests and convicts activists under Articles 117 and 118 of the penal code, as well as Article 331, which cites  “Abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the State”. Such broadly defined articles are regularly used as a catch-all to target citizens who criticize the VCP or demand political reform. The SRV has long claimed that it does not jail prisoners of conscience, only individuals who violate the law. Human rights groups say the two are not mutually exclusive.

Addendum: On November 28, 2019, two more individuals in Dong Nai were convicted under Article 117. Huynh Minh Tam, 41, and his sister Huynh Thi To Nga, 36, were sentenced to nine and five years of prison, respectively, for making Facebook posts critical of the SRV.


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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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