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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.

Freedom of expression

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

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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.

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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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“Minds” over Facebook: Vietnamese Netizens’ Great Cyber Exodus?

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Photo Credit: Adorkableaznbunny

In the past two days, the “F-Generation” of Vietnam started what seems to be an online exodus when many well-known Facebookers announced that they are moving on to Minds.com – an alternate platform for social media.

The “F” in F-Generation stands for “Facebook” as the online social media giant has a dominant presence in the country where some statistics raised the number of users to be between 50 to 60 million.

For about two months, people had been protesting both online and offline against the latest Cybersecurity law which was passed by an overwhelming 86.86% of the National Assembly.

The law raised concerns over Internet users’ privacy, people’s freedom of expression, and their right to access the Internet.

Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, declared: “This bill, which squarely targets free expression and access to information, will provide yet one more weapon for the government against dissenting voices. It is no coincidence that it was drafted by the country’s Ministry of Public Security, notorious for human rights violations.”

In less than two days, some of the prominent Facebookers have received thousands of subscribers over at their freshly minted Minds accounts.

In the same time, reports of pages and personal accounts have been taken down by Facebook also surfaced.

Trương Thị Hà, a victim of police brutality during the last “Black Sundays” protest, announced on Minds this morning that her account has been deactivated by Facebook.

After she posted a letter to her university professor, asking him to explain why he stood there while the police brutalized her during her detention after the protest, that very post was deleted for “violating Facebook community standards” at about 8:30 a.m. Then, her entire account seemed to have disappeared by 10:40 a.m.

According to author Claire Bernish who wrote about Minds back in June 2015, Facebook could finally meet its match. Minds gives users the familiarity with many features they have already accustomed to on Facebook while commits to protecting their privacy.

“Minds takes the government’s eyes out of the equation by encrypting private messages and using open-source code that any programmer can check,” Bernish explained.

“We are a free and open-source platform to launch your digital brand, social network, and mobile app. We are also a social network ourselves. It is a global social network of social networks,” the Minds team declared.

The hacker collective Anonymous also backed Minds, citing the fact that the founders of the new online social media shared the same vision of those who use the Internet for activism.

According to the Wired UK: “Two of those on the Minds team – Bill Ottman and Lori Fena – have strong backgrounds dealing with privacy and freedom of expression issues and are both known for their internet-related activism. It is likely these are the type of people that the company is hoping to attract – those with a cause, who want to build something and share it openly with others who may also have a cause.”

President Trần Đại Quang signed the Cybersecurity bill into law on June 25, 2018, although some 27,000.00 signatures of citizens who had expressed their objection to the proposal of the law, were delivered to his office during the prior weekend.

It seems as if the activists and human rights defenders from Vietnam might have found a friend in Minds because the reason they chose Facebook in the first place, was to use the platform as a tool to advance a cause: promoting human rights and democracy in the country.

While not all of them agreed to the solution of leaving Facebook and saw that as a sign of defeat, the silence from Facebook during the last two months as the Cybersecurity law stormed the nation could force many activists to reconsider whether to continue to use it as their primary platform. Most are still using both platforms, but all seemed to agree that if Facebook agreed to comply with the new Cybersecurity, then it could mean they will have to leave for good.

Vietnamese netizens are no strangers to such online “resettlement.” Back in 2009, when Yahoo 360 blog closed down its operation, Facebook quickly became the next best choice in the country.

Almost ten years later, while Facebook could still enjoy its reign in the country as the most used online social media platform, the power of Vietnamese users should not be underestimated by anyone.

Afterall, Vietnamese are a group of people whose contemporary history entwined with mass migration and exodus. They have a lot of experience with starting over, yet again, and they will not be afraid to do so.

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