In mid-April, Reuters broke the news that Facebook agreed to censor so-called “anti-state” posts after the Vietnamese government put pressure on the social networking site and took local servers offline, slowing down traffic. Since the news broke, the activist and politically-engaged community in Vietnam has been determined to jump over another hurdle in its struggle for freedom of expression.
Thao Dinh, an activist in Hanoi who formerly worked as director of communications for VOICE, a Vietnamese human rights NGO, said she has used Facebook much less since learning about the content restrictions and has switched to other platforms.
“Diversity is important,” Dinh said. “The worst scenario is one platform becoming a monopoly. So I would recommend people use as many services as they want depending on their needs, such as Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, Blogs, LinkedIn, Reddit, Quora, Telegram, except the platforms spying on us for the government.”
Additionally, Vietnamese activists are urging their fellow countrymen, if they choose to use Facebook, to be wary about sharing sensitive and personal information on the platform. Hoang Dung advised his network on Facebook to adjust their settings and clear their “Off-Facebook Activity” which is a summary of activity that businesses and organizations share about your interactions, such as visiting their apps or websites.
Vi Yen Nguyen, the training manager at VOICE, shared on her profile three other alternatives to Facebook: Signal, Telegram, and Wire.
Vi Yen wrote, “Facebook was faced with pressure by the Vietnamese government and gave up. It is no longer a reliable platform. Although admittedly, in this censorship case, Facebook is only a victim.”
(Vi Yen Nguyen’s quote was in Vietnamese: “Facebook đã chào thua trước áp lực của chính quyền Việt Nam. Nó không còn là một nơi đáng tin cậy. Dù phải thừa nhận rằng, trong vụ kiểm duyệt này, Facebook cũng chỉ là một nạn nhân.”)
Human Rights Watch said that Facebook should have resisted.
“Facebook has set a terrible precedent by caving to the government of Vietnam’s extortion,” said John Sifton, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “Now other countries know how to get what they want from the company, to make them complicit in violating the right to free speech. The government of Vietnam shouldn’t have throttled the platform’s traffic in the first place, but Facebook shouldn’t have agreed to its demands.”
In a statement, a Facebook spokesperson said that the Vietnamese government “has instructed us to restrict access to content which it has deemed to be illegal in Vietnam. We believe freedom of expression is a fundamental human right, and work hard to protect and defend this important civil liberty around the world. However, we have taken this action to ensure our services remain available and usable for millions of people in Vietnam, who rely on them every day.”
The UN’s Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights require businesses such as Facebook to “respect human rights,” including avoiding infringements and addressing adverse impacts in which they are involved. As a member of the Global Network Initiative, Facebook has pledged that it will protect the human rights of users when they are confronted with government demands inconsistent with international human rights standards.
“It’s hard to see how Facebook can live up to its human rights obligations when it’s helping Vietnam censor free speech,” Sifton said.
The pressure on Facebook coincides with a new decree by the Vietnamese government implementing monetary fines for people and internet companies for posting or publishing a sweeping range of items with “forbidden contents”, materials that promote “reactionary ideas”, “have not been allowed for circulation, have been prohibited for circulation or have been confiscated.”
The United States and other countries should have better utilized their diplomatic leverage to support Facebook in their stance against pressure from the government of Vietnam, Human Rights Watch said. Other businesses and business groups should have stood more publicly with the company to prevent the government’s strong-arm tactics.
The reluctance of Vietnamese activists to continue using Facebook has created new market opportunities for other social networks. Dinh recently got her Twitter profile officially verified.
“Since #Facebook is lowering its standards to protect human rights in #Vietnam, Twitter and other platforms are having a great opportunity for growing in [the] Vietnam market,” she tweeted.
In Prolific Day, Vietnam Sentences Six Dissidents to Prison for “Anti-state” Activities
Nguyen Chi Vung (top), Pham Van Diep (middle), Vo Thuong Trung, Doan Viet Hoan, Ngo Xuan Thanh, and Nguyen Dinh Khue (bottom, left to right) . Photo sources: Kien Thuc, Binh An, and Nguoi Lao Dong newspaper, respectively. Composite photo created by Will Nguyen.
In a particularly damaging day for Vietnamese dissidents, six individuals were sentenced to a total of 26 years in prison for opposing the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam (SRV). The convictions on November 26, 2019 bookend an active month for Vietnamese security forces, who have arrested and convicted numerous individuals for their on- and offline “anti-state” activities.
Nguyen Chi Vung, 38, was sentenced to six years in prison by a court in the southern Mekong Delta province of Bac Lieu. Vung was convicted under Article 117 of the 2015 Penal Code for “Making, storing, distributing or disseminating information, documents and articles against the SRV”. According to Reuters, Vung had “held 33 livestream sessions on Facebook ‘to share distorted information’ and ‘encourage people to participate in protests during national holidays’”.
Pham Van Diep, 54, was convicted under the same article, with a north-central Vietnamese court in Thanh Hoa sentencing him to nine years in prison and five years probation. His indictment stated that he had a nine-year history of expressing online dissent and that he made frequent Facebook posts criticizing the VCP leadership and SRV policies. According to Tuoi Tre newspaper, he had previously printed and distributed anti-SRV flyers in the Lao capital city of Vientiane. On June 28, 2016, Diep was arrested by Laotian authorities, tried in February of 2018, and sentenced to 21 months in prison for “using the territory of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic to oppose neighboring countries”. Lao authorities took him to the Vietnamese border one month after his trial, where he was allowed to re-enter Vietnam.
In Dong Nai, a province bordering the southern hub of Ho Chi Minh City, four individuals were convicted under Article 118 for “Disruption of security”. According to Vietnamese Human Rights Defenders, “[t]he four convicted were arrested on April 25, 2019, for their intention to participate in a peaceful demonstration scheduled on April 30 to mark the 34th anniversary of the fall of the US-backed Saigon regime”. Vo Thuong Trung, 42, and Doan Viet Hoan, 35, were each sentenced to three years in prison, while Ngo Xuan Thanh, 49, and Nguyen Dinh Khue, 41, each received 28 months.
The convictions of these six individuals in one day comes a little over a week after 43-year-old music teacher Nguyen Nang Tinh was sentenced to 11 years in prison and five years house arrest for violating Article 117. According to his lawyers, a Facebook account making anti-SRV posts used the same name as their client. However, they said the account did not, in fact, belong to him. Tinh was arrested May 29, 2019 and convicted on November 16 in the north-central province of Nghe An.
Last week also saw the high-profile arrest of Pham Chi Dung, a journalist with a doctorate in economics, and a founding chairman of the Independent Journalists Association of Vietnam. Dung, 53, is a former VCP member and is known for his incisive political and economic critiques of both the VCP and SRV. He has written for Voice of America, BBC, Radio Free Asia, NBC News, Nguoi Viet, and Asian Nikkei Review.
Dung’s arrest has been noted by the European Union and condemned by Reporters Without Borders, who hailed him as “an outspoken Vietnamese journalist and leading press freedom defender who for years has been trying to help create an open and informed civil society in Vietnam that is not controlled by its Communist Party.” He is currently being held at the Phan Dang Luu Detention Center in Ho Chi Minh City, one of two centers in the city where political dissidents are usually held while they are being investigated (the other being Chi Hoa Prison). He faces up to 12 years behind bars.
Although freedom of speech, press, and assembly are all guaranteed by Article 25 of the 2013 Vietnamese Constitution, the SRV is a one-party, authoritarian state that does not tolerate challenges to its power. It routinely arrests and convicts activists under Articles 117 and 118 of the penal code, as well as Article 331, which cites “Abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the State”. Such broadly defined articles are regularly used as a catch-all to target citizens who criticize the VCP or demand political reform. The SRV has long claimed that it does not jail prisoners of conscience, only individuals who violate the law. Human rights groups say the two are not mutually exclusive.
Addendum: On November 28, 2019, two more individuals in Dong Nai were convicted under Article 117. Huynh Minh Tam, 41, and his sister Huynh Thi To Nga, 36, were sentenced to nine and five years of prison, respectively, for making Facebook posts critical of the SRV.
Vietnam: State-Owned People’s Army Newspaper Defamed Independent Media, Civil Society Organizations
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.”
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.
Vietnam Will Soon Follow China’s Social Credit System?
Nguyen Anh Tuan, CEO of Boston Global Forum, during his presentation at the Vietnam Internet Forum 2019 recently took place in Hanoi on March 20-21, 2019, proposed that governments should use AI technology to grade their citizens’ social credit.
The online business newspaper Cafe Biz Vietnam reported, Nguyen Anh Tuan suggested that blockchain technology should be used to reward “good citizens.”
And while his definition of a “good citizen” described those who uphold the universal values of human rights and the rule of law under such standards set by the United Nations, the very idea of proposing a “social credit system” to grade citizens in a country like Vietnam worried people that it would be the same model China is currently implementing.
It is probably a bit unrealistic at the moment to expect the government of Vietnam – who is among the worst violators of citizens’ rights in the world – to uphold international standards on human rights and the rule of law.
Reporters Without Border continuously ranks the country among the bottom five on its World Press Freedom Index, a fact that was raised by the members of the UN Human Rights Committee during the country’s review under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) earlier this month.
CIVICUS insists on continue listing Vietnam as a “closed” society where views of political dissents are not tolerated and severely punished.
Right now, 218 political prisoners are serving a sentence in Vietnam.
At the very same time that Nguyen Anh Tuan was presenting his speech, Vietnam sentenced another man, Le Minh The, to two-year-imprisonment for posting on Facebook and calling for democratization and separation of powers.
Nguyen Anh Tuan was not a name unfamiliar to the Vietnamese public. He was the founder of Vietnamnet, a state-owned media online newspaper which, at one time, was the leading online news site in Vietnam. He was once considered by the government of Vietnam as one of its up and coming stars, especially in the field of information and technology.
After leaving his post as the editor-in-chief of Vietnamnet in about 2011, Tuan moved to expand his career in the United States. He attended school at Harvard Business School, served on the boards of various foundations before founding his own Tran Nhan Tong Foundation, and later the Boston Global Forum in 2012.
His introduction on the website of Boston Global Forum states:
“Tuan is recognized globally for his pivotal role as a Vietnam Government reformist, who has successfully fostered freedom-of-expression, vigorous open debate and private enterprise in a nation that has become a leader in commerce, culture, and the innovation as well as a close ally of the West.
Tuan served on the Harvard Business School Global Advisory Board from 2008 to 2016. He also serves on the Board of Trustees of the Free-for-All Concert Fund in Boston.”
His accomplishments are well-praised by American scholars and politicians throughout the years. Curiously, however, not one of them mentioned even once the worrying human rights situation in Vietnam while discussing Tuan’s contributions to improving the quality of life for Vietnamese people.
While Tuan no longer has any relationship with Vietnamnet, this very newspaper has been promoting heavily for the new cybersecurity law during the past year.
A quick search on Google for Vietnamnet together with the term cybersecurity law in Vietnamese (luật an ninh mạng) will yield dozens of articles in a few seconds.
Concerns grow day by day over the new cybersecurity law of 2018 which many people see as a direct violation of Article 19 – Freedom of Expression – under the ICCPR.
This new law allows police authorities to request internet service providers, both international and domestic, to turn over users’ data as soon as they open an investigation without warrants and with no judicial oversight.
Last summer, in protest of Facebook’s potential collaboration with the Vietnamese government and the new cybersecurity law, hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese Facebook users started to sign up for Minds, another social media platform.
However, once the Vietnamese users found out that Nguyen Anh Tuan of Boston Global Forum was among the members of Minds’ Advisory Board, they quickly grew cold of the new platform.
Given the latest presentation from Nguyen Anh Tuan on AI technology and the proposed “social credit system,” it is, perhaps, that the Vietnamese users were correct in having their skepticism over any technology with his name on it all along.
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