On March 25, 2019, in what could have been a classic libel case, the online newspaper of the Vietnamese Armed Forces defamed some independent newspapers, media, and civil society organizations, including our Vietnamese site – Luat Khoa magazine in an article written by author Nhat Minh.
Vietnam’s national television VTV 1 also broadcasted the same article during its morning news on the same day.
The article accused Luat Khoa magazine and its editor-in-chief, Trinh Huu Long, to have received support from Viet Tan, an overseas Vietnamese political party that has been classified as a “terrorist organization” by the regime.
Among other things, it also alleged that independent newspapers, media, and civil society organizations such as Luat Khoa, Cong Hoa TV, Vietnam Path Movement, and so forth, were promoting “fake democracy,” and that the real intention of these organizations was to misrepresent information about the Vietnamese Communist Party and the government by portraying them in a negative light.
According to the author, some forms of citizen journalism and blogging by individuals who exposed wrongdoings and injustice in society could be criminal conducts.
Examples of bloggers recently imprisoned for exercising their freedom of expression, such as Phan Kim Khanh and Nguyen Van Hoa, were named in the article to support the writer’s position.
The article, in many ways, reinforced the Vietnamese government’s view of independent media in the country. It was this very same view which probably had put Vietnam at number 176 out of 180 on the Reporters Without Border’s World Press Freedom Index in 2018.
It may be a challenge for Vietnam to name one independent media from the list of over 800 news outlets it often uses to prove press freedom exists in the country.
Nevertheless, the article suggested criminal prosecution against the activists and journalists operating these organizations. It also called for stronger and more effective collaboration from the tech companies – such as Facebook and Google – in compliance with the new cybersecurity law.
The article reconfirmed what the Vietnamese government has continued claiming in the past one and a half years, that Facebook has already established a separate channel to resolve requests from Vietnam regarding any information deemed to have violated the country’s social media (rules).
It also paraphrased an unnamed official from the Cybersecurity Bureau of the Ministry of Public Security (Vietnam’s National Police Department) and declared that “Google and Facebook both found Vietnam’s cybersecurity law is ‘suitable’ and will research on amending their policies to be in line with Vietnam’s law.”
The article included a quote from Ann Lavin – Google’s Director of Public Policy and Government Affairs in Asia-Pacific – stating that “Google would respect and follow the domestic laws of host countries, including Vietnam.”
However, the author failed to make it clear to the readers that Ms. Lavin’s quote was taken from a conversation she had with the then Minister of Information and Communication, Truong Minh Tuan, in January 2018 – almost one year before the new cybersecurity took effect. The fact that she is no longer working at Google was also left out.
The article did provide statistics on the removals of contents allegedly done by Google and Facebook upon the government’s request.
It stated that by “the end of June 2018, Google had removed 6,700/7,800 clips from YouTube – a Google’s product – including 300 clips carried subverting contents, inciting subversion against the VCP and the government and 6 YouTube channels got blocked completely.”
It further claimed that “Facebook also removed 1,000 links (out of 5,000 requests) which were deemed to have violated Vietnam’s laws, 107 fake accounts, 137 accounts that defamed, misrepresented, and propagandized against the VCP and the government.”
The information listed on the Google Transparency Report and Facebook’s Government Requests Report for 2018 does not seem to exactly collaborate the claims in the People’s Army Newspaper’s article.
However, these companies’ reports did show a worrying trend of increasing content restrictions in Vietnam and the seeming willingness of tech giants to comply with the government’s requests.
Among the four requests for contents removal from Vietnam listed by Google during the reporting period dated between January-June 2018, we found a particularly troubling one.
Accordingly, the Authority of Broadcasting and Electronic Information, Ministry of Information and Communications in Vietnam had asked Google to remove “over 3,000 YouTube videos that mainly criticized the Communist Party and government officials.” Google admitted that they “restricted the majority of the videos from view in Vietnam, based on Decree 72.”
Decree 72 is a controversial legal document, seeking to curtail the people’s ability to share information on the internet in Vietnam since 2013, half a decade before the cybersecurity law came into existence.
As for Facebook, their reports indicated that the company had complied with a total of 265 content restrictions requests from the Vietnamese government during the first six months of 2018 compares to 22 requests from July-December 2017.
Facebook also released some Vietnamese users’ data to the government upon requests under legal process and emergency requests.
From January-June 2017, Facebook received four requests involving five accounts where they released some information to 25% of the requests. From July-December 2017, Facebook released information in response to 38% of the eight requests, affecting 12 user accounts.
In the first six months of 2018, however, the Vietnamese government made a total of 12 requests which involved 26 accounts, but Facebook only released data in response to 17% of the requests.
The above statistics showed a concerning trend because, before 2017, Facebook’s transparency report indicated that it had never released users’ data to the government under any circumstances.
Reports from Vietnamese activists on the grounds in the past 12 months, however, also indicated a much larger number of accounts removal and content restrictions on Facebook.