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Freedom of expression

English Speakers In Vietnam Got A Taste Of Censorship Over An Article On Pollution



Screen caption of the removed article on VN Express on February 21, 2019.

February 20, 2019, a few foreigners living both inside and outside of Vietnam were sharing the news that an English article published on the site VN Express was taken down before they could read it.

Some of them suspected that it was the state’s censorship or even the beginning of the enforcement of the new cybersecurity law.

As of press time, still, the link is not working.

The article was about the lone man’s trip across the country of a Vietnamese photographer, Nguyen Viet Hung, to raise awareness on marine pollution in Vietnam using what he knows best, photography.

The story of Hung was becoming quite popular in Vietnam during recent days.

He is a well-known photographer whose trip was published on social media and a few newspapers, including one that is under the ownership of the Ministry of Public Security, Cảnh Sát Toàn Cầu online (Global Police Force).

The 3,260 km long journey, dubbed “The Green Journey” on social media, was documented by Hung and his photography skills

He began his trip in August 2018.

Along the way, he was documenting the danger of improper waste disposal, especially plastic waste, and its effects on the environment.

There was an incident where Hung said he felt scared for his life when taking a picture of a truck dumping trash into the ocean because he thought the truck driver was calling more people to come over and intimidate him.

The story was well-received by the public because it raised concerns over an urgent matter that all Vietnamese people face daily: how to deal with garbage disposal in the country.

Marine pollution and pollution, in general, have gained more attention among the public because the amount of trash being disposed in Vietnam on a daily basis is quite alarming.

In 2018, Vietnamese people became even more concerned when a report placed their country among the top five ocean polluters regarding plastic waste became viral.

Like many other censored topics in Vietnam, we could never fully understand why an article suddenly becomes “unavailable” when the web link stops working.

One may suspect that it was because the story placed equal responsibility on both the people and the state for marine pollution, where the failure of the garbage disposal system in Vietnam played a significant role.

Hung said in one of the Vietnamese articles, that while at Sa Ky Harbor in Quang Ngai Province, it was impossible for him to find a garbage can. As the result, all local residents living in the area would dump their trash directly into the waters which they also use for bathing and consuming.

Regardless of the reason, Nguyen Viet Hung’s photographs bring about a reality that both the Vietnamese people and their government must face: marine pollution in Vietnam is a code red issue where drastic measures, as well as immediate behavioral changes, must happen now.

Hung had put this succinctly in the only paragraph left from the taken-down article:

The farther I went, the more I realized that the environment in general and marine environment in particular of our country are being seriously destroyed. Most people are not aware of the scale of the problem, and this should change, Hung said.

A few photographs from Nguyen Viet Hung’s trip:

Plastic rubbish filled the land near a market place in Tuy Phong, Binh Thuan Province. Photo Courtesy: Nguyen Viet Hung.

Lacking proper garbage disposal, people dumped their trash directly into the ocean. Photo courtesy: Nguyen Viet Hung.

Children were playing near a creek filled with garbage. Photo courtesy: Nguyen Viet Hung.

A child was picking up near the seashore. Photo courtesy: Nguyen Viet Hung.

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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