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State-Owned Media Features Police Brutality With Neutral Headline, Sparks Debate

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Screen captions of abuse from victim's video clip. Source: Facebook.

Yesterday evening, January 29, 2019, Facebookers in Vietnam were circulating a video clip showing a gentleman lying on the ground while another, older man in police uniform was stomping on him, hitting him on the face, head and chest area.

By the afternoon of January 30, 30219, the story got featured on Tuoi Tre online – one of the largest newspapers in Vietnam. It was one of the rarer times where one could find stories of police’s misconducts featured quickly on state-owned news right after making waves on social media.

While Tuoi Tre was able to confirm the story and interviewed a supervisor of the police officers involved in the incident, many netizens became very critical of its headline which states: “Temporary Suspension of Deputy Ward Police Officer Using Feet to ‘Take Action’ on Witness.”

The criticisms targeted the headline for de-escalating an incident of police brutality into something a lot less severe by using vague and ambiguous language like “take action.”

The term “take action” was actually used by the Head of Tuy Hoa Police Department, Nguyen Van Dung, in his interview with Tuoi Tre regarding the incident.

Some freelance journalists believed that Tuoi Tre practiced too much self-censorship and that in this situation, they could have used the word “stomp” and would not face any disciplinary action from the Central Committee of Propaganda. Later in the day, another online newspaper, Phap Luat of Ho Chi Minh City also published the same story and used the word “stomp” in the headline.

Tuoi Tre was slammed with an order to pay a total fine of VND220 million (close to USD10,000) in July 2018 along with a 90 days suspension.

Back then, the government issued such order after finding that Tuoi Tre had reported news that was “untrue” and causing “severe impacts” when it published an inaccurate story about the late President Tran Dai Quang’s comment on the Law on Demonstration and failed to remove a “nationally divisive” comment left by a reader on another article.

However, with this story, some readers did come to the defense of Tuoi Tre, stating that it was a clever way of playing with words to get the people’s attention. Also, it should be okay for Tuoi Tre to quote a word used by a person they have interviewed.

To these people, what more important was the fact that Tuoi Tre dared to swiftly report the incident at length, letting the victim provided a detailed description of the events.

The victim in the incident was Le Huu Quoc, a resident of Phu Thanh Ward, Tuy Hoa City, Phu Yen Province. Quoc was a witness in an altercation between two other men.

According to Quoc, he and another person were trying to break up the fight of two others, and the local police have asked all of them to come to the station.

At the police station of the local ward, Quoc was physically assaulted – as seen in the video clip – by the deputy chief Huynh Minh Le.

Quoc told Tuoi Tre that when he was at the police station, officer Le started yelling at him, strangled his neck, pushed him to the ground and used his feet to stomp on Quoc. Another officer came and stopped Le.

After Quoc came home from the station, the police officers – who were fully armed – also arrived at his house later that night, asking him to go back and provide more statement. Quoc refused because he was scared from the treatment he received earlier.

Quoc said: “I was only a witness, but they had to call a fully armed police force to come and get me like a criminal, causing damage to my reputation. Further, I already came to the station earlier and got beaten up by the deputy chief so I would not go again.”

Confirming with Tuoi Tre, the Head of Tuy Hoa City Police Department, Nguyen Van Dung, acknowledged the incident and informed the public that the involved officer had been put on leave.

Vietnam faced increasing public complaints regarding police brutality in recent years. After its first review under UN’s Convention Against Torture in 2018, the government is due to elucidate about five individual cases of death while in police custody by December 7, 2019.

The debate about Tuoi Tre’s decision to publish the story and its use of certain language for its headline could be continued in the days to come regarding the practice of state’s censorship and self-censorship.

In the meanwhile, the fact that the story of Le Huu Quoc quickly made the headlines shows the inconvenient truth about police brutality in Vietnam: it continues to happen around the country at an alarming rate, causing detrimental effects on the people and society as a whole.

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Vietnamese Police Continue Questioning People Over Facebook Activities

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Phan Chi Toan at the police station. Photo courtesy: Vietnamnet.

The police force in Ben Tre Province, Vietnam seemed to have been quite busy in the last few months, going after people’s postings on Facebook.

In January 2019, their Domestic Security Bureau took a university student in and questioned him over his Facebook’s usage, including whether he had joined a group calls “Liking BBC Vietnamese” (Thích BBC Tiếng Việt) – which the police classified as “politically hostile.”

On February 13, 2019, Vietnamnet newspaper reported that Ben Tre provincial police conducted an investigation and interrogated a 35-year-old man, Phan Chi Toan, about his Facebook’s activities under the username “Phan Rio.”

Police alleged that the Facebook account calls Phan Rio was conducting “subversion against the people’s government.”

How did he do it according to the authorities?

He did so by joining numerous groups, allegedly “politically hostile” towards the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) and the State, posting, sharing, and commenting on contents that incited demonstrations, as well as propagating to defame the policies, guidelines, and directions of the VCP and the government.

The police had not formally charged Toan with a crime but did declare that they would proceed with the case according to the regular procedures.

The same Vietnamnet’s article further mentioned that the People’s Committee of Mo Cay Bac District, also in Ben Tre Province, had fined a 55-year-old man – Dang Tri Thuc – under Government’s Decree 174/2013/ND-CP, Article 64, Section 4, for using his Facebook account to incite public demonstration in December 2018.

Accordingly, Thuc, a driver, was accused of using the live-stream feature on Facebook to make video clips, calling on others to protest on a few major road intersections on December 22 and 28. He allegedly admitted guilt, confessed and promised he would not repeat the offense, so the authorities fined him with 15M VND or approximately 650 USD.

Decree 174/2013/ND-CP, Article 64: Violations against regulations on websites/ news websites

Section 4. A fine ranging from VND 30,000,000 to VND 50,000,000 shall be imposed for any of the following violations:

a) Propagating information against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam; sabotaging the bloc of great national unity at a degree of severity which is still not liable to criminal prosecutions;

b) Propagating information with the aims of inciting war of aggression, causing hatred between ethnic groups or people of countries, inciting violence or propagating reactionary thought at a degree of severity which is still not liable to criminal prosecutions;

c) Distorting history, denying the revolutionary achievements or offending the nation, people or national heroes at a degree of severity which is still not liable to criminal prosecutions.

While the right to demonstrate is constitutionally protected in Vietnam, the government had routinely violated this right by applying their Decree 38/2005/NĐ-CP – to regulate “public gatherings – during protests to arrest the participants.

Since the nationwide mass protests broke out in June 2018 against the draft bills on the cybersecurity law and the development of three special economic zones, the security police have continued to track down those who had participated and made arrests in different cities and provinces.

The family of a woman names Doan Thi Hong from Binh Thuan Province has recently made a public plea on social media, alleging that Hong was taken into police custody by a group of plainclothes police on September 2, 2018. She was a participant in the same June 2018 protest mentioned above.

Although she has a young child under 36-month-old at the time of the arrest, which under Vietnam’s laws is a factor to consider against pre-trial detention, her sister claimed that Hong had been arbitrarily kept incommunicado since September of last year.

According to her sister, Hong was not a dissident and only exercised her right to protest that one time.

It seems that the police’s recent investigations targetting Facebook’s activities and usage in Vietnam also focus primarily on the average users and not necessarily the more well-known bloggers and dissidents.

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Vietnamese Police Questioned University Student Over Facebook Postings

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Tran Ngoc Phuc at the police station. Photo courtesy: Dong Khoi online newspaper

On February 1, 2019, the Domestic Security Bureau of Ben Tre Province interviewed Tran Ngoc Phuc, a 21-year-old student of Ton Duc Thang University in Ho Chi Minh City at their station.

Dong Khoi online newspaper, a publication of the VCP’s Provincial Committee in Ben Tre, published the story on the same day.

According to the article, the police accused Phuc, a resident of Tan Phu Commune, Chau Thanh District, Ben Tre Province, of using his personal account to propagandizing against the Vietnamese Communist Party and the State.

Namely, Phuc was using Facebook under the name “Ngoc Phuc” to join several “politically hostile” groups. Among them, was “The South of Vietnam” (Miền Nam Việt Nam), Fanclub of Saigon Capital (Đô thành Sài Gòn Fanclub), and  “Liking BBC Vietnamese” (Thích BBC Vietnamese).

Phuc also allegedly admitted to the police that he was indeed the Facebooker Ngoc Phuc and that he had posted, shared, and commented on specific contents.

The police had deemed these contents as materials which “propagandized, sabotaged the thoughts, distorted the direction, objectives, and policy of the VCP, the laws of the State and distorted (the image of) the leader Ho Chi Minh.”

Formal charges against Phuc had not been filed, but the police indicated that they would continue to build the case and follow the regular legal procedures in this case.

During the first month since the new Cybersecurity Law took effect in Vietnam on January 1, 2019, there were several reports that the police had questioned and detained some Facebookers.

Rights groups, online campaigners, bloggers, activists, and dissidents continuously criticize the new law for further curtailing freedom of speech and shrinking the online civic space in Vietnam.

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Former Political Prisoner, Truong Duy Nhat, Disappeared In Thailand After Seeking Refugee Status With UN

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Truong Duy Nhat. Photo courtesy: Teu Blog

Last Friday, January 25, 2019, former political prisoner, Truong Duy Nhat, was last seen at the office of the UN HCR – The Refugee Agency in Bangkok, Thailand.

Nhat was there to register himself as an asylum seeker after leaving Vietnam earlier in the month.

According to his family and friends, no one had heard from him since last Saturday, and they could not contact him.

Nhat has left Vietnam for Thailand for about 21 days, said his family.

The family was able to confirm that Nhat was not held by Thailand’s IDC (Immigration Detention Center). They also obtained further information today that Thai authorities, up to this point, did not arrest Nhat either.

Nhat’s phone number in Thailand is not turned off, but no one answered the calls. His wife and daughter are worried about his safety and well-being as they are still unable to get in touch with him.

Truong Duy Nhat was sentenced to two-year-imprisonment in 2014 under Article 258 of the 1999 Penal Code. Nhat was arrested in May 2013 and held in detention until his trial.

The government alleged some of his blog entries on the Blog “Another Point of View” (Một Góc Nhìn Khác) was “abusing democratic freedoms to infringe the interest of the state”.

His blog was indeed critical of the government and the leaders of the Vietnamese Communist Party.

One of the entries published in April 2013 was calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung and the VCP’s General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong for their perceived political and economic mismanagement.

After his release in 2015, Nhat continued with his blogging and resided in Da Nang, Vietnam.

Nhat’s wife is still in Vietnam, but his daughter is studying in Vancouver, Canada. They are asking members of the public to come forward with any useful information regarding his whereabouts.

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