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Freedom of expression

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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Freedom of expression

Reporters Without Borders Calls For The Release Of Pham Doan Trang

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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”

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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: nguoi-viet.com/ 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: nguoi-viet.com/ 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: nguoi-viet.com/ 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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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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