Vietnam Briefing: Tet, COVID-19, Journalists, And The South China Sea

Trinh Huu Long
Trinh Huu Long

COVID-19

The COVID-19 situation continued to worsen throughout the Lunar New Year and serious measures have been put in place.

  • Hanoi has decided to temporarily close coffee shops, street restaurants, and historical sites from midnight, February 16.
  • Students in Hanoi will have to study online until February 28, following similar decisions by Hai Duong, Binh Thuan, Thanh Hoa, Binh Dong, and Binh Phuoc provinces.
  • Ho Chi Minh City’s students will continue to study online until February 28.
  • The chairperson of the Hanoi People’s Committee proposed that Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc close universities located in the capital until the end of February. These universities are under the authority of the central government, and not the local government.
  • Hai Duong, a northern province near Hanoi, will be locked down from February 16 for 15 days and citizens have been ordered to stay home. Only essential movements and businesses are allowed. Schools are closed until at least February 28.

Vietnam – one of Asia’s top-performing economies during the pandemic

Report from CNBC on February 10:

“Vietnam was one of Asia’s top-performing economies in 2020 and among the few countries that managed to record growth last year as authorities globally scrambled in their battle against the coronavirus pandemic. It saw 2.9 percent growth in 2020, narrowly edged out by the Taiwan economy’s 2.98 percent growth.”


A state-owned media journalist arrested for defaming provincial officials

It’s not unusual hearing news stories about journalists being arrested in Vietnam. Mr. Pham Bui Bao Thy (Phạm Bùi Bảo Thy) – the head of the representative office of Giáo dục và Thời đại (Education and Era) newspaper in central Vietnam – was arrested and charged by Quang Tri provincial police with “abusing democratic and freedom rights to infringe on the State’s interests and rights and the interests of organizations and individuals” under Article 331 of the Penal Code, according to Tuoi Tre and the Vietnam News Agency.

The provincial police have accused him of using anonymous Facebook accounts to spread baseless information and to defame some top government officials in the province.

The police have put him under a two-month detention order.

Another person named Le Anh Dung (Lê Anh Dũng) was also arrested in the same case. Voice of Vietnam (VOV) reported that Mr. Dung, 56, lived in Ho Chi Minh city and he is accused of administering the accounts.

Article 331, previously Article 258 of the Penal Code, is widely condemned by rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Several human rights defenders and dissidents have been arrested and convicted of the crime, including well-known journalists such as Nguyen Huu Vinh, also known as Anh Ba Sam (2014), and Truong Chau Huu Danh (2020).


Is a government-backed hacking group targeting dissidents?

The lotus is seen as a symbol of Vietnam. Look at the national flagship airline’s logo and you will see it. And now, technology experts believe that a hacking group named OceanLotus, potentially linked to the Vietnamese government, is targeting dissidents and human rights organizations.

The Committee to Protect Journalists, an international rights group, released an interview with Steven Adair, president and co-founder of Volexity, a US-based cybersecurity company that has studied OceanLotus, on February 1. Below is a part of the interview:

“Question: Is it possible to say whether state actors are behind OceanLotus?

Answer: We definitely believe it’s out of Vietnam, but whether it’s a government agency, a contractor working for them, or something else, we don’t claim that we know that. We look at the immense level of effort and resources to maintain all the infrastructure and identify the victims. It’s not something anyone’s going to do in their spare time.”


Human Rights Watch: Vietnam among countries using COVID-19 to justify free speech violations

A report released on February 11 by Human Rights Watch lists Vietnam among countries taking advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic to advance the governments’ agenda of suppressing human rights, especially the right of free speech.

Quote:

“Authorities in at least seven countries have blocked individual news reports or ordered online media or social media users to remove or edit Covid-19 related content. Vietnamese authorities summoned 650 Facebook users between January and March to question them about publishing false information relating to the pandemic, forced all of them to remove their posts, and fined over 160 of them. Vietnamese law does not only target incorrect information, but information that is deemed to defame or insult others’ reputation or honor.”


France’s nuclear attack submarine patrols in the South China Sea

On February 17, a lot of Vietnamese people inside and outside of Vietnam, as well as the state-owned media, will be speaking about the border war with China that started exactly 42 years ago. Anti-China sentiment has been strong in Vietnam, and many people wanted to see world superpowers harshly confront China on issues such as trade, human rights, security, and so on. Territorial disputes in the South China Sea are among them. Vietnamese people are desperate to see the United States and other countries on their side. Last week, France seemed to make a strong statement on the issue.

Quoted from AFP:

“The French nuclear attack submarine SNA Emeraude recently conducted a patrol in the South China Sea, Defence Minister Florence Parly announced this week, sparking questions over the timing and tensions in Asia’s hotly contested waters.”


Xi Jinping urges Vietnam to “stand against the instigation of external forces” on the South China Sea issue

It was Lunar New Year in Vietnam and China last week. The two countries’ top leaders, Nguyen Phu Trong of Vietnam and Xi Jinping of China, had a phone conversation on February 8 to exchange wishes and to discuss various issues, according to Xinhuanet, China’s state-owned media agency. Here are a few things to note from this conversation.

Quote:

“China, Xi added, is willing to work with Vietnam to accelerate the synergy of the Belt and Road Initiative with the ‘Two Corridors, One Economic Belt,’ promote the construction of cross-border economic cooperation zones between the two countries, and explore exchanges and cooperation in such fields as healthcare, digital economy and humanities.

The two sides should strengthen coordination and cooperation on international and regional issues, firmly uphold the international system with the United Nations at its core, oppose protectionism and unilateralism, and support a fast entry into force of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership agreement, Xi noted.

China and Vietnam, he said, should properly manage the maritime differences and stand against the instigation of external forces to promote the development of regional peace and stability.”

Vietnam’s major mainstream media outlets, such as The Government’s Portal, Nhan Dan, VOV, and Tuoi Tre, didn’t report the above-mentioned points of the conversation.

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Trinh Huu Long

A journalist and democracy advocate at @luatkhoatapchi and @thevnmesemag magazines. He's also a co-director of Legal Initiatives for Vietnam, a nonprofit organization that runs The Vietnamese.