Vietnam Briefing: More Writers And Activists Silenced While The Country Struggles With Record COVID-19 Cases

The Vietnamese Magazine
The Vietnamese Magazine

The Vietnam Briefing, which is released every Monday morning Vietnam time, looks at Vietnam’s political developments of the past week.


Pro-democracy writers and activists persecuted

Last week, multiple pro-democracy writers and activists were charged, and some were also convicted under Article 117 of the 2015 Penal Code, which prohibits “anti-state” writings, and Article 331, which criminalizes “abusing social media in order to erode the state’s rights.” The list includes the conviction of Pham Chi Thanh, a satirical writer, the arrest of Do Nam Trung, a human rights activist, and the charge filed against Le The Thang, a member of an independent journalism platform called Bao Sach (Clean Newspaper).

Who are these writers and activists?
  • Pham Chi Thanh is a satirical writer who frequently criticizes Vietnamese political leaders through his online medium, a blog and a Facebook page, and books. He used to be the deputy editor of the state-controlled platform Voice for Vietnam but lost this position in 2007 when he wrote an article criticizing China. Human Rights Watch reports that he has been in a bad health condition since his arrest in 2020. On July 9, he was sentenced to five years and 6 months in prison, and five years of probation.
  • Do Nam Trung is a frontline human rights activist who focuses on democracy advocacy. In 2014, he was arrested and sentenced to 14 months in prison for anti-China and anti-authoritarian activism. Upon his release in 2015, Trung continued his activism, which led to harassment and serious threats from the government. In the early morning of July 6, he was arrested again. Under Article 117, which is “making, storing, distributing or disseminating information, documents and items against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam,” one can be sentenced to between five to 20 years in prison.
  • Le The Thang is a photographer and a filmmaker of the independent journalism platform Bao Sach. He was charged along with four other members of Bao Sach, Truong Chau Huu Danh, Nguyen Thanh Nha, Nguyen Phuoc Trung Bao, and Doan Kien Giang under Article 331 of the 2015 Penal Code. Article 331, which prohibits “abusing democratic freedoms to infringe the interests of the State,” stipulates prison sentences between six months to three years or probation of up to three years.
What are the writers and activists’ lawyers saying?
  • So far, only Ha Huy Son, Pham Chi Thanh’s lawyer, has talked to the press.
  • The lawyer argues that Article 117 cannot be applied to Pham Chi Thanh as he was only criticizing Nguyen Phu Trong, the then-president and secretary-general of the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP), while Article 117 covers “anti-state” writings.
  • The lawyer further argues that law enforcement cannot equate an individual with the state, even if such individual is the president or secretary-general of the VCP.

Meanwhile, Vietnam continues to deny any violations of press freedom. Last week, Vietnam Plus, a state-controlled media platform, said that press freedom in Vietnam is an “undeniable objective reality” in response to Reporters Without Borders (RSF) ‘s ranking on freedom of the press.

  • In its 2021 ranking, RSF ranks Vietnam 175 out of 180 countries, only ahead of a few countries, like China and North Korea.
  • The state-controlled media is calling RSF’s classification “biased, unobjective, and completely groundless.”
  • The state-controlled media defends Vietnam’s press freedom by citing “diverse types and content of the press,” the fact that international media outlets can operate within the country, as well as the fact that Vietnam has widespread internet usage.
  • However, they completely ignored the fact that independent journalists and writers are being arrested and have been charged almost every week since late last year with questionable charges, that there are no independent journalists and journalism platforms allowed to operate in Vietnam, and that non-state platforms such as BBC Vietnamese or our own Luat Khoa Magazine and The Vietnamese Magazine are largely blocked out of internet access in Vietnam.

New draft regulations on the Internet awaiting public consultation

According to Baker Mckenzie, Vietnam’s Ministry of Information and Communications just released a draft amendment of the well-known Decree 72, which is the main set of regulations concerning the internet, social networks, and gaming services.

The Ministry is awaiting public recommendations before officially enacting the decree amendment. This period of public consultation lasts for two months, with a deadline of September 9, 2021.

Here are some important points about Decree 72, according to Baker Mckenzie:

  • The new set of obligations specifically for offshore social network services;
  • Broader scopes of illegal content under Article 5.1 that are subject to content takedown mechanism;
  • New regulations on the provision of data center service and cloud service;
  • New regulations on live-streaming services; and
  • New obligations for social network providers regarding child protection (e.g., age verification, content filter, and takedown).”

COVID-19 in Vietnam

  • In total, as of last week, the country has 28,470 confirmed cases and 112 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University. While the number seems modest, Vietnam has only fully vaccinated 0.28 percent of the population.
  • Vietnam received 2 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine Moderna from the United States under the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (COVAX), an initiative of the World Health Organization to ensure access to vaccines for every country in the world. The Moderna doses that Vietnam just received reportedly came from the United States as a part of 80 million vaccine doses being sent out to foreign countries under the Biden administration.
  • So far, Vietnam possesses four types of COVID-19 vaccine: AstraZeneca (5.8 million doses), Sputnik V (2000 doses), Sinopharm (500 thousand doses), and Pfizer (90 thousand doses). Moderna would be the fifth vaccine to be administered after the government approved Moderna two weeks ago.

Learn more about Vietnam

Important date: It has been 26 years since Vietnam and the United States normalized their relations on July 12, 1995 (Vietnam time).

The US Military Should Return to Vietnam

Charles K. Djou and Matthew B.Powell/Defense One/July 08, 2021

“As a part of the Vietnam War effort, the United States built several major military facilities in Vietnam in the 1960s; all are strategically positioned to deter China’s aggression in the South China Sea and assure regional U.S. allies. The U.S. and Vietnam should consider the return of American military forces to these facilities in the next 5 to 10 years; such a move would also bolster Vietnam’s ability to resist coercion from China. After a series of high level diplomatic overtures in the last decade, the U.S. and Vietnam should now engage in more active and detailed staff level discussions about a return of U.S. forces to Vietnam.”

How Vietnam’s ‘influencer’ army wages information warfare on Facebook

James Pearson/Reuters/July 09, 2021

“Force 47, as the Vietnamese army’s online information warfare unit is known, consists of thousands of soldiers who, in addition to their normal duties, are tasked with setting up, moderating and posting on pro-state Facebook groups, to correct “wrong views” online.

According to a Reuters review of provincial-level state media reports and broadcasts by the army’s official television station, Force 47 has since its inception in 2016 set up hundreds of Facebook groups and pages, and published thousands of pro-government articles and posts.”

Vietnam learns to exploit nationalist rage over Chinese maps

Dien Luong/Nikkei Asia/July 09, 2021

“Over the years, Vietnamese authorities have become well aware that any move to repress nationalism, anti-China sentiment in particular, only alienates the very audience whose support they need to shore up. In that context, Vietnamese authorities have displayed an acute sensitivity to nationalist sentiments expressed online, often using them to serve their own agenda.”

U.S. Considers Whether to Take Step Toward Tariffs on Vietnam

Eric Martin, John Boudreau, and Saleha Mohsin/ Bloomberg/ July 07, 2021

“During the closing days of President Donald Trump’s administration in January, the U.S. labeled Vietnam’s currency actions unreasonable and restrictive to American businesses, but refrained from hitting the nation with punitive tariffs.

The trade investigation remains open, however, and if the U.S. decides to formally propose levies on goods imported from Vietnam, it would need to allow time for public comments and hearings. That means that the initial step of publishing a proposed product list would need to happen in the next several weeks, according to trade experts.”

Do Cambodia’s Human Rights Groups Ignore Ethnic Vietnamese?

David Hutt/The Diplomat/July 06, 2021

“The issue of ethnic Vietnamese in Cambodia is complex. For more than a century, Vietnam has been the bete noire of Cambodian nationalists (of which more later). According to official census data from 2013, there are around 63,000 ethnic-Vietnamese people in Cambodia, but the true number may be much higher. One organization puts it between 400,000 and 700,000. While some ethnic Vietnamese in Cambodia today are new migrants, many have lived in the country for generations. Yet official discrimination means that a significant number are unable to claim citizenship or proper legal documents – around 90 percent, according to the Phnom Penh-based Minority Rights Organisation. This means they are denied the rights of voting, land ownership, and even access to schools, and so are essentially stateless.”

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