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Internet Freedom In Vietnam: Prospects And Setbacks

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Photo credit: Phil Noble/ Reuters (background), Reuters/ Freedom House/ AFP (left to right). Graphic: The Vietnamese Magazine.

On September 21, Freedom House, a non-profit organization based in Washington D.C., released its annual “Freedom on the Net” report, classifying [1] Vietnam as “not free” in its annual 2021 ranking. 

A Freedom House chart evaluates the state of internet freedom in 70 countries [2] this year, based on their performance in three different criteria: Obstacles to Access, Limits on Content, and Violation of User Rights. Trinh Huu Long, a co-founder of Legal Initiatives for Vietnam and an editor at The Vietnamese Magazine, is the author of this report’s Vietnam chapter.

According to Freedom House, the scores are based on a scale of 0 (least free) to 100 (most free). Overall, Vietnam totalled 22 on the 100-point measuring scale, remaining the same as last year’s score and falling two points from the 2019 report.

Vietnam has been ranked “not free” on the Freedom House report this year. Photo: screenshot/ Freedom House.

There could be several reasons, and one of them includes the Vietnamese government’s threats to shut down services of foreign social networks, such as Facebook and Google. If those companies refuse to comply with its censorship demands on critical content, the government will shut them down. Meanwhile, the Freedom House report also cites a Vietnamese draft decree on personal data protection released for public comments earlier this year. If passed, this law would require internet providers and technology companies to locally store Vietnamese users’ data in the country and hand it over to the government upon demand.

Vietnam has also been ranked [3] “not free” in Freedom House’s annual “Freedom in the World” chart. For many local activists, these results are hardly surprising.

Vietnam has experienced steady economic growth in the past decades, with its youth becoming increasingly active on social media. By the end of 2020, over 70 percent [4] of the country’s population, equal to around 60 million people, had access to the internet. These statistics brought about the development of a new civic space. However, as the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) perpetually controls almost every aspect of social life with an iron fist, this rapidly expanding cyberspace, which extends beyond the Party’s reach, is considered an underlying threat to the regime.

To assert its control over this novel avenue of free speech and dissent, the VCP has employed multiple tactics. Some of their methods include deploying an army of “public opinion shapers” tasked with disseminating propaganda, punishing local dissidents, and applying pressure on foreign companies to aid in its censorship demands.

Yet, the bigger picture is not as grim as it might look. Despite censorship, online threats, and other hindrances, there are still several bright prospects for the future of internet freedom in Vietnam.

Opportunities for a More Liberated Internet in Vietnam

Despite its poor record in limiting online content and history of violating user rights, Vietnam has achieved significant improvements in assuring equal internet access to its citizens, as clarified in the “Obstacles to Access” section.

Improved internet infrastructure, which leads to faster connection speeds, decreased subscription costs, and high smartphone penetration, has played an essential role in making the internet more affordable and accessible to most people. Given that around two-thirds of the population currently lives in the countryside, social media platforms have become an alternate source of information for specific Vietnamese audiences who stand in opposition to highly propagandized and more traditional forms of media.

Recent statistics [5] show that television viewership in rural areas fell to 86% while internet penetration reached 91%. Still, Freedom House emphasizes that “connectivity remains out of reach for those living in extreme poverty, which is found in many communities of [ethnic minorities] in mountainous areas.”

As young Vietnamese become more educated and skilled in technological know-how, they are “increasingly turning to blogs, social media platforms, and other online news sources for information, rather than state television and radio [broadcasts],” Freedom House reported. 

These young tech-savvy internet users also actively acquire new tools, which are “well-known” and “can be found with a simple Google search, for circumventing censorship and bypassing firewalls.”

Vietnamese people spend more time [6] on social media than their Asian peers, with Facebook and Google services (Youtube and Instagram) among the most popular platforms [7] in the country. As of January 2021, there were about 68 million [8] Facebook users in Vietnam; seven in every 10 Vietnamese people have an account on Facebook.

While many of its authoritarian counterparts, most notably China, have constructed solid and massive firewalls fencing themselves off international internet services, Vietnamese internet users can still chat with their Facebook friends or watch videos on Youtube. Despite periodic blockages and slowdowns during “sensitive events,” full and comprehensive censorship currently remains impossible for the Vietnamese authorities to implement.

Dien Nguyen An Luong, a well-known op-ed contributor to The New York Times, provides [9] some reasons to explain why it is too late for Vietnam to control social media.

First of all, he states that this can be attributed to the country’s lack of financial and technological resources to build domestic social networking services that could challenge those coming from big tech companies in Silicon Valley like China has been doing. Dien adds that Vietnam’s “mild approach to keep internet business and e-commerce growing” has also helped create a “hybrid infrastructure that thrives on developing and adapting faster than the government’s ability to regulate and control.” And finally, he concludes that Vietnamese internet users “have always been able to find workarounds” to the restrictions imposed by their government.

The Government’s Iron Fist

Yet, Vietnam still faces several hurdles that hinder the country’s momentum towards a more liberal internet environment. Censorship is perhaps one of the most severe threats.

As the Vietnamese government is intolerant and fearful of dissent, various methods have been deployed to silence critics and keep online discussions under control. Among these tactics are blocking “toxic” webpages, censoring sensitive content, and forcing social media companies to comply with the state’s censorship demands.

Vietnam has scored poorly in most criteria in the “Limits on Content” section of the Freedom House’s report. Unlike China, the authoritarian Vietnamese government commonly uses methods to suppress the civic internet space while remaining seemingly “free” on the surface.

For example, Facebook and Google are still accessible in Vietnam, but their users are always under constant surveillance from cyber security forces. Furthermore, the passing of the controversial and opaque Cybersecurity Law in 2019 has granted Vietnamese authorities more power to request social networking sites to remove and delete content deemed as “anti-state,” “malicious,” or “illegal.”

Besides these “official” practices under the Cybersecurity Law, the VCP has also deployed “unofficial” methods, such as throttling the connection to local servers in order to coerce foreign companies to carry out censorship, harassing activists and journalists, restricting access to blogs or online newspapers which criticize the state, and mobilizing the Force 47 Cyber Unit [10]. Force 47 is an army of online “public opinion shapers” whose job is to steer online discussions in accordance with Party guidelines.

Screenshot of a Facebook page called ‘Firmly believing in the Party,’ identified by Vietnamese state media as being controlled by ‘Force 47 Cyber Units.’ The photo was taken on July 6, 2021, by Reuters.

Meanwhile, online speech and freedom of expression have continued to be suppressed, as reported in the “Violations of User Rights” category.

In theory, the right to freedom of expression and access to information is enshrined in the Vietnamese Constitution. However, Vietnam fell short of its commitment to securing such rights for its citizens. The VCP continues to maintain control of all levels of cyberspace.

Vietnamese authorities also warned high school and university students not to [11] share, comment on the country’s historical and political disinformation in cyberspace. An article from Luat Khoa Magazine in 2019 states [12] that the reason why there has not been a youth movement in Vietnam compares to other places, such as Hong Kong, is because students have been encouraged not to “read unauthorized posts, [and] circulate unregulated information on social media.” Otherwise, they might risk getting expelled.

The watchful eye of the government constantly scrutinizes local activists, bloggers, and independent journalists. They can be penalized for simply engaging in online activities such as writing posts, live streaming newsworthy events, or publicizing any information that the government considers “sensitive” or “inappropriate.”

Legislation [13] is being used to punish and silence online critics, such as Article 109 of the Penal Code, which penalizes citizens “carrying out activities aiming to overthrow the people’s administration,” and Article 117 for those “making, storing, disseminating or propagandizing materials and products that aim to oppose the State of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.” According to Freedom House, since the legal terms found in these laws are vaguely defined and easily manipulated, the trials and proceedings related to online speech are “often brief, and predetermined.” If found guilty, offenders could also face “years-long prison sentences.”

To further expand its total control over cyberspace in Vietnam, the VCP has compelled Facebook and Google to become its tools for censorship and harassment of citizens [14]. In a 78-page report, “Let us Breathe!”: Censorship and criminalization of online expression in Viet Nam,”[15] Amnesty International (AI) documents and exposes the current situation of social media users in Vietnam, along with how the repression of online speech is aided by world’s tech giants such as Facebook and Google. 

The AI report illustrates that Vietnamese social media users “face the constant threat of arbitrary arrest, prosecution, and other forms of harassment in retaliation for exercising their right of freedom of expression online.” At the same time, they could also get blocked on social media and have their posts deleted; their personal data could also be handed to the state’s security department if demanded.

The Vietnamese Ministry of Information and Communications recently introduced a code of conduct [16] to direct the online behavior of social media users, state organizations, and social media providers alike. The new code encourages internet users to “post positive content” about the country while prohibiting those which “affect the interests of the state” and requires social networking sites to “deal with users in accordance with Vietnamese law” by deleting content upon the government’s request.

The new code, while it is not legally binding [17], has sparked considerable concerns for local internet users and social activists. Many of them fear that the new regulation is a warning sign from the government and will lead to further encroachments in the country’s already restrictive cyberspace. 

Building upon its insatiable desire to shape online discussions, censor “sensitive information,” and harass activists, the VCP wants to further infringe on the personal freedom of more than 60 million internet users in Vietnam by telling them what to think, do, or express on the internet.

But what is truly disheartening is that Vietnam has all the conditions needed to make internet freedom thrive and prosper; it has the infrastructure in place, and cyberspace has never been more accessible. Yet, it will never reach this ideal if the government continues to maintain and strengthen its grip on freedom while refusing to let its people speak.

References:

  1. Freedom on the Net 2021 (Vietnam). (2021, September). Freedom House. https://freedomhouse.org/country/vietnam/freedom-net/2021
  2. Internet Freedom Scores. (2021, September). Freedom House. https://freedomhouse.org/countries/freedom-net/scores
  3. Global Freedom Scores. (2021). Freedom House. https://freedomhouse.org/countries/freedom-world/scores
  4. Nguyen, M. N. (2021, July 23). Internet usage in Vietnam – statistics & facts. Statista. https://www.statista.com/topics/6231/internet-usage-in-vietnam/
  5. Lien, H. (2021, June 9). In rural Vietnam, Facebook finds a new approach to growth. Nikkei Asia. https://asia.nikkei.com/Business/Technology/In-rural-Vietnam-Facebook-finds-a-new-approach-to-growth
  6. Quy, N. (2021, February 6). Vietnamese spend more time on internet, social media than Asian peers: report. VnExpress. https://e.vnexpress.net/news/news/vietnamese-spend-more-time-on-internet-social-media-than-asian-peers-report-4232155.html
  7. Nguyen, M. N. (2021b, August 9). Leading social media apps in Vietnam in Q2 2021. Statista. https://www.statista.com/statistics/941843/vietnam-leading-social-media-platforms/
  8. Statista Research Department. (2021, September 10). Countries with the most Facebook users 2021. Statista. https://www.statista.com/statistics/268136/top-15-countries-based-on-number-of-facebook-users/
  9. Luong, D. (2017, November 30). Vietnam Wants to Control Social Media? Too Late. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/30/opinion/vietnam-social-media-china.html
  10. Reuters Staff. (2017, December 26). Vietnam unveils 10,000-strong cyber unit to combat “wrong views.” Reuters. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-vietnam-security-cyber/vietnam-unveils-10000-strong-cyber-unit-to-combat-wrong-views-idUSKBN1EK0XN
  11. Tuan, D. (2021, April 29). Nâng cao ý thức pháp luật trên không gian mạng cho học sinh. An Ninh Thủ Đô. https://anninhthudo.vn/nang-cao-y-thuc-phap-luat-tren-khong-gian-mang-cho-hoc-sinh-post464936.antd
  12. Bao, V. (2019, June 23). Vì sao sinh viên Việt Nam không thể biểu tình như sinh viên Hong Kong? Luật Khoa Tạp Chí. https://www.luatkhoa.org/2019/06/vi-sao-sinh-vien-viet-nam-khong-the-bieu-tinh-nhu-sinh-vien-hong-kong/
  13. Vietnam’s Proposed Revisions to National Security Laws. (2015, November 19). Human Rights Watch. https://www.hrw.org/news/2015/11/19/vietnams-proposed-revisions-national-security-laws
  14. Viet Nam: Tech giants complicit in industrial-scale repression. (2020, December 1). Amnesty International. https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/press-release/2020/12/viet-nam-tech-giants-complicit/
  15. Viet Nam: Let us breathe! Censorship and criminalization of online expression in Viet Nam (ASA 41/3243/2020). (2020, December). Amnesty International.
  16. Phuong Nguyen, James Pearson. (2021, June 18). Vietnam introduces nationwide code of conduct for social media. Reuters. https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/vietnam-introduces-nationwide-code-conduct-social-media-2021-06-18/
  17. Long, T. H. (2021, June 19). Vietnam: The New Code Of Conduct On Social Media Is Not Legally Binding. The Vietnamese Magazine. https://www.thevietnamese.org/2021/06/vietnam-the-new-code-of-conduct-on-social-media-is-not-legally-binding/

Human Rights

Tightening The Noose: The Latest Developments In Vietnam’s Assault On Internet Freedom

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Screenshot of Vietnam section on CIVICUS website. Photo source: CIVICUS.

On August 25, 2021, U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris met with several of Vietnam’s top leaders. According to a report by Reuters, while the focus of their dialogue centered on the South China Sea dispute and the strengthening of U.S presence in the region, she also brought up several human rights concerns with the Vietnamese government. Although Harris did not provide details about what they had discussed, the vice president assured the press that “[the United States] was “not going to shy away” from difficult conversations with countries the United States has partnerships with.

Prior to her arrival, Vietnam was already dealing with a surge in Covid-19 infections, which resulted in lockdowns and travel restrictions in several places in the country, including Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi. As of September 26, Vietnam has tallied over 476,000 confirmed cases with 18,000 deaths. The Vietnamese government’s approach to containing the spread of the virus has been questionable at best with its use of state media and propaganda to control the narrative and deployment of the military to enforce lockdown measures. 

Yet, despite the ongoing health crisis and the dialogue with the U.S. vice president, Vietnam continues its crackdown, detention, and imprisonment of several online critics, journalists, and activists. 

Freedom on the Net 2021

Freedom House, a US-based organization founded to support and defend democracy worldwide, released its annual Freedom on the Net report on September 21, 2021. This report analyzes the state of accessibility and censorship of a country’s cyber domain, alongside violations of internet users’ rights, and ranks each nation as being Free, Partly Free, or Not Free. It comes as no surprise that Vietnam continues to fare poorly in this regard; it has been classified as Not Free for three consecutive years and has been performing terribly under the standards set by Freedom House. 

This research highlights several aspects of the state of internet freedom in Vietnam. Regarding accessibility, Freedom House states that smartphone and internet penetration in the country has been good with internet prices becoming more affordable. However, connectivity continues to remain an issue for those living in extreme poverty and for ethnic minorities who live in the remote mountainous areas of Vietnam. Censorship also continues to be practiced by the Vietnamese government as it blocks or filters content coming from individuals and organizations that are critical of the regime. Predictably, Vietnam’s violation of internet-user rights is just as rampant compared to prior years with “police routinely [flouting] due process, arresting bloggers and online activists without a warrant or retaining them in custody beyond the maximum period allowed by law.”

CIVICUS: Latest Developments in Vietnam

On September 27, 2021, CIVICUS, an international alliance of various organizations that aim to strengthen citizen action and civil society worldwide, released its own report that details more recent events regarding the state of internet freedom in Vietnam. Similar to Freedom House, CIVICUS classifies Vietnam as Closed according to its own standards; a country with this rating exhibits “a complete closure of civic space” where “an atmosphere of fear and violence prevails, where state and powerful non-state actors are routinely allowed to imprison, seriously injure and kill people with impunity.” Criticism of those in power is also severely punished. Likewise, media freedom is virtually non-existent and the internet is heavily censored.

The CIVICUS report begins by highlighting the cases of several Facebook users who were arrested or imprisoned under Articles 117 and 331 of Vietnam’s Criminal Code. Nguyen Van Lam and Tran Hoang Minh were both found guilty by Vietnamese courts of violating these statutes on July 20, 2021. Lam was sentenced to nine years in prison for “posting anti-state writings and sharing videos and other content, including broadcasts considered politically subversive,” and for “creating, storing, disseminating information and materials against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.” Minh was given five years of jail time for “abusing democratic freedom” and for his objections to the Dong Tam land dispute incident

The report continues with the arrests of Facebookers Tran Hoang Huan and Bui Van Thuan, on August 10, 2021, and August 30, 2021, respectively. Huan’s recent posts voiced his objections and concerns regarding Vietnam’s use of Chinese-made COVID-19 vaccines. He was charged by the Tien Giang People’s Procuracy for “making, storing and spreading or propagandizing information or documents against the state under Article 117 of the Penal Code.”  Bui Van Thuan was arrested in his home by policemen who pretended to be medical workers. Bui Van Thuan’s wife, Trinh Nhung, stated with The 88 Project that Thuan had previously posted “biting commentaries against the government’s handling of COVID-19 and other political issues.”

The more recent cases of Nguyen Thuy Duong and Nguyen Duy Linh are also mentioned in the report. CIVICUS states that Amnesty International had reported on September 2, 2021, that Duong had been fined 5 million dong (US$220) for sharing a Facebook post that accused Vietnamese authorities of neglect during the COVID-19 lockdown. This post blamed the government for the rampant spread of hunger among city residents during this time. Nguyen Duy Linh was arrested on September 14 and charged by state authorities with “conducting anti-state propaganda” under Article 117 of the country’s Criminal Code.

Updates regarding the case of detained human rights defender, journalist, and co-founder of The Vietnamese and the Luat Khoa online magazines, Pham Doan Trang, are also included in the CIVICUS report. On September 6, 2021, the government informed Doan Trang’s lawyer, Luan Le, that his client would be “formally indicted with ‘conducting propaganda against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam under Article 88 of the 1999 Penal Code.” Despite her case being brought to the attention of the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (UNWGAD), she still faces the very real possibility of being sentenced to 20 years imprisonment. 

Radio Free Asia’s coverage regarding the arrest of five journalists from the Facebook-based news outlet, Bao Sach (Clean Newspaper) is also mentioned in the report. Truong Chau Huu Danh, Nguyen Thanh Nha, Doan Kien Giang, Nguyen Phuong Trung Bao, and Le The Thang were charged with violating Article 331 of Vietnam’s Criminal Code for posting “anti-state and reactionary information” which delved into information that was “inappropriate, distorting, against the country’s interests, and slanderous of the people’s administration.” Thang is currently released on bail while the other four journalists are still in detention. Truong Chau Huu Danh, the founder of Bao Sach, also faces the additional charge of posting stories that “generated bad interactions between internet users in the cyber environment” which “propagandized, distorted, defamed and seriously slandered Party organizations and local Party committees.”

Tran Huu Duc and Le Thi Kim Phi were accused by the authorities of using Facebook to connect with members of the U.S.-based Provisional Government of Vietnam, an organization founded in 1991 by former soldiers and refugees who remained loyal to the South Vietnamese government after the war. Than Huu Duc was arrested in January 2021 and charged under Article 109 of Vietnam’s Penal Code for “gathering information on Nghe An residents … for a referendum on naming [Provisional Government of Vietnam] member, Dao Minh Quan, as president of Vietnam.” Duc was also accused of “posting political content online” that opposed government policies and “slandering leaders of Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party.” In September 2021, Le Thi Kim Phi was arrested and charged under the vague clause of “carrying out activities to overthrow the government.” 

In January 2018, the Provisional Government of Vietnam was labeled a “terrorist organization” by the Vietnamese authorities. 

Additional Restrictions on Internet Freedom 

Following the passage of the controversial Cybersecurity Law in 2018, the CIVICUS report further mentions a draft of a government decree which further restricts internet freedom by limiting live-streaming on popular social media sites. CIVICUS states that, “under the terms of the decree, any account that operates on a social media platform in Vietnam and has more than 10,000 followers must provide contact information to authorities” and that “only registered accounts will be allowed to live-stream.” The draft also imposes additional responsibilities on social media providers, requiring them to block or remove content within 24 hours if they receive a “justified complaint” from an individual or organization. 

When passed this decree, coupled with the already draconian Cybersecurity Law, will serve to further cement the Vietnamese Communist Party’s (VCP) rule over the country’s already restrictive cyberspace, putting social media users more at risk of the government’s retribution and reducing social media platforms to tools of government surveillance. 

Freedom on the Net 2021 provides an overall look at the state of internet freedom in Vietnam while the CIVICUS report presents recent, documented, and specific events that support Freedom House’s outlook on the country. Both illustrate a very grim and depressing reality about Vietnam: that despite international pressure, in the form of U.S Vice-President Harris’ visit, and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the VCP is more concerned about maintaining power and control over its people than prioritizing their welfare and safety during these difficult times; the Party would rather control the narrative than work to give actual aid to much of its struggling populace. 

In the end, the actions of the Vietnamese government serve only as a reminder of its ineptitude during times of crisis and its callousness to the plight of everyday Vietnamese; in its relentless attack against internet freedom and freedom of speech, the more pressing and immediate threats to the welfare of the Vietnamese people remain half-heartedly addressed. 

Citations:

  1. Bose, N. (2021, August 25). U.S. VP Harris offers Vietnam support to counter Beijing in the South China Sea. Reuters. Retrieved September 28, 2021, from https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/us-vp-harris-offers-vietnam-support-counter-beijing-south-china-sea-2021-08-25/
  2. Jaffe, A. (2021, August 26). Harris says she urged Vietnam to free political dissidents. – The Diplomat. Retrieved September 29, 2021, from https://thediplomat.com/2021/08/harris-says-she-urged-vietnam-to-free-political-dissidents/
  3. Nguyen, J. (2021, August 19). State media and social media during the COVID-19 pandemic: A tale of two cities in Vietnam. The Vietnamese. Retrieved September 29, 2021, from https://www.thevietnamese.org/2021/08/state-media-and-social-media-during-the-covid-19-pandemic-a-tale-of-two-cities-in-vietnam/
  4. Nguyen, J. (2021, September 12). Why did the Vietnamese Communist Party militarize its fight against COVID-19? The Vietnamese. Retrieved September 29, 2021, from https://www.thevietnamese.org/2021/09/why-did-the-vietnamese-communist-party-militarize-its-fight-against-covid-19/
  5. Shahbaz, A., & Funk, A. (n.d.). Freedom on the net 2021: The global drive to control Big Tech. Freedom House. Retrieved September 30, 2021, from https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-net/2021/global-drive-control-big-tech
  6. Reed, A. (2021, September 21). New research: Vietnam remains “not free” on internet freedom, Freedom House says. The Vietnamese. Retrieved Sept 30, 2021, from https://www.thevietnamese.org/2021/09/new-research-vietnam-remains-not-free-on-internet-freedom-freedom-house-says/
  7. Huu Long, T. (2021, September 21). Vietnam: Freedom on the net 2021 country report. Freedom House. Retrieved October 1, 2021, from https://freedomhouse.org/country/vietnam/freedom-net/2021
  8. C. I. V. I. C. U. S. (2021, September 27). CRACKDOWN ON ONLINE CRITICS PERSISTS IN VIETNAM AS NEW DECREE CONTROLLING LIVESTREAMING PROPOSED. Civicus. Retrieved September 29, 2021, from https://monitor.civicus.org/updates/2021/09/27/crackdown-online-critics-persists-vietnam-new-decree-controlling-livestreaming-proposed/
  9. Civicus. (2020, April 7). ONLINE DEBATE ON DONG TAM INCIDENT FOLLOWED BY PANDEMIC SILENCED BY VIETNAM AUTHORITIES. Civicus. Retrieved October 1, 2021, from https://monitor.civicus.org/updates/2020/04/07/online-debate-dong-tam-incident-followed-pandemic-silenced-vietnam-authorities/
  10. The 88 Project (2021, September 6). Vietnam free expression newsletter no. 34/2021 – week of August 30-September 5. The 88 Project. Retrieved September 29, 2021, from https://the88project.org/newsletter-no-34-2021/
  11. Finney, R. (2021, September 3). Vietnamese facebook user fined for ‘fake news’ as criticism grows of government’s handling of pandemic. Radio Free Asia. Retrieved September 30, 2021, from https://www.rfa.org/english/news/vietnam/fine-09032021182640.html
  12. Whong, E. (2021, September 10). Vietnam indicts five journalists from Facebook-based outlet. Radio Free Asia. Retrieved September 30, 2021, from https://www.rfa.org/english/news/vietnam/baosach-09092021174755.html
  13. Finney, R. (2021, September 14). Vietnam court sentences member of ‘Provisional Government’ to three-year prison term. Radio Free Asia. Retrieved October 29, 2021, from https://www.rfa.org/english/news/vietnam/court-08182021185109.html
  14. Gerin, R. (2021, September 14). Third Vietnamese charged for Facebook connections with US-based Exile Group. Radio Free Asia. Retrieved September 30, 2021, from https://www.rfa.org/english/news/vietnam/le-thi-kim-phi-09102021183034.html

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Internet Freedom

The Threat Of A Free And Open Internet In Vietnam

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Picture Source: Reuters. Graphic: The Vietnamese Magazine.

We now live in the Age of Information, where we can access facts, data, or statistics with a simple touch of a button through our phones or computers. With enough time, commitment, and motivation, anyone can attain baseline theoretical knowledge in various fields with access to the internet. 

And if a private individual wants to share what they know, they can easily do so using the many avenues to spread information now available on the World Wide Web. Yet, this ease of access carries with it several caveats, one of which is the rampant spread of misinformation. 

Fake news, bogus statistics, and false narratives have sadly become common as we try to navigate our way through the internet. While trusted news outlets, publishers, and independent journalists are doing their part to weed out disinformation, their efforts are not enough to realistically stop, or at the very least, stifle the spread of these lies. 

And while these experts continue to research and learn about how best to deal with this issue, for now, the challenge falls on private citizens to exercise their judgment and recognize their biases to discern the truth from what is merely a constructed or false reality. Even though humans are far from rational beings touted by various thinkers and philosophers from the past, this should hopefully be enough to slow down misinformation coming from isolated sources. 

Yet, what if campaigns of disinformation were more focused? What if they were run not only by an individual or a small group but by an entire ecosystem that pushes a questionable goal or agenda? And what if this hive mind had enough power, money, and resources to censor alternate sources of information or silence anyone, or anything, that would compromise its meticulously constructed version of the world?

The U.S Department of State’s 2020 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: Vietnam tackles several issues plaguing the country: internet freedom. The report states that the Vietnamese government “restricted and disrupted access to the internet, censored online content, imposed criminal sentences for online expression, and monitored private online communications without legal authority.” 

Also mentioned are several restrictions on local internet service providers in the country, which the government controls. Those few that are allowed to operate are either in part or wholly owned by the state, which can actively monitor the online activities of the subscribers of these internet services.

The report also states that websites that the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) considers “politically or culturally inappropriate” are also blocked on the Vietnamese internet and cannot be accessed directly. This group includes international sites owned and operated by Vietnamese people residing overseas and several credible news outlets such as Radio Free Asia, Voice of America, and the BBC Vietnamese news service. 

The meddling of the Vietnamese government does not end there. The report adds the situation of websites and social media networks – such as Facebook and Google – where Vietnam already gives the privilege to operate in the country. Yet, these companies are still being compelled to fully cooperate with the Ministry of Information and Communications to weed out and identify news and information that the government considers “bad” or “toxic.”

They added that companies and organizations that operate social network sites, host blogs, or provide information about politics, economics, culture, or society must give comprehensive details about their plans and set up their servers within Vietnam. It is done for the convenience of the Vietnamese government so that when it requests the personal information of the account holders, it will undoubtedly have them. Hence, all information collected by these companies is stored for 90 days, with specific metadata being held for up to two years. 

The report highlights the government’s crackdown against private citizens, journalists, and bloggers who use their platforms to criticize and complain about the actions of the VCP or expose the many allegations and manifestations of corruption that plagues the Vietnamese government. These brave men and women, with our co-founder and co-editor, Pham Doan Trang, being one of them, bear the brunt of the government’s ire and often face the possibility of “arrest, short-term detentions, surveillance, intimidation, and the illegal confiscation of [their or their family’s] computers and cell phones.” 

Despite the severity of the restrictions on the Vietnamese internet, this is not something new; it is just another manifestation of the Vietnamese government’s ever-tightening noose around the neck of free speech and press freedom. 

The careful monitoring of websites, internet service providers, social media programs, and bloggers is the latest in a long line of the party’s transgressions against outlets that challenge the narrative the VCP tries so hard to instil as truth. And with the passage of the controversial Cyber Security Law in 2018, it is evident that the government is trying to replicate its success in controlling all forms of printed media in a more modern context, according to an article written in January 2019 by Thoi Nguyen in The Diplomat.

Yet, with all their control and propaganda, what is this elusive narrative that the VCP is trying so hard to maintain? What is the story they want every one of their citizens to accept as gospel and as the absolute truth?

The Party is perfect, and that the Party only has the people’s best interests at heart?

The VCP’s version of reality has itself at the helm of Vietnam; it paints the Party as the almighty saviour of the country from the hands of the West. It construes itself as the central, and perhaps, the sole reason for Vietnam’s miraculous rebirth from conflict and civil war to its current state. The Party believes the VCP, guided by the spirit of Ho Chi Minh, should continue to carry the nation towards progress for all eternity. 

Such is the display of bravado, arrogance, and delusion of the Vietnamese government. 

Hence, it continues its charade, striving to censor masterfully, control, and monitor what occurs in Vietnam’s corner of the internet, a tactic not too different from what China practices. At the same time,  it continues to peddle its story to its citizens and the rest of the world, 

All this leads to a peculiar reversal of roles where misinformation comes not from the flawed thought process of the ill-informed or the writings of misguided conspiracy theorists. Instead, it comes from the precise calculations and machinations of the state, which can control most of what people consume in mainstream media. And if the people are constantly bombarded with lies and misdirection, they will eventually accept these falsehoods as fact and gospel.

As such, the task of revealing new truths to the Vietnamese people and raising awareness about what is going on outside the government’s online information bubble lies in the hands of individuals. It falls on independent journalists, writers, bloggers, and small online publications to crack open the Vietnamese firewall, despite the risks, to make citizens question what they hold to be true. The threat to the free and open internet in Vietnam is genuine to the government as it exposes their lies and renders them obsolete.

For when the state fails to provide the truth, it becomes our duty to do it ourselves.

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Internet Freedom

New Research: Vietnam Remains “Not Free” On Internet Freedom, Freedom House Says

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Photos Sources: AP, Reuters, and SCMP. Graphic: The Vietnamese Magazine.

Internet freedom in Vietnam has always been at the mercy of state censorship and strict government control. Journalists, bloggers, and activists face the genuine risk of harassment by state forces and even imprisonment. On September 21, 2021, Freedom House, a US-based organization founded to support and defend democracy worldwide, released its annual report titled Freedom on the Net 2021. Disappointingly, Vietnam continues to fare poorly in its metrics and analysis as the situation surrounding Vietnam’s internet freedom continues to worsen year after year.

Freedom House’s Methodology

In its annual report, Freedom House rates each country on a scale of 100 to 0, with a score of 100 representing the freest conditions and with 0 signifying the least free. The highest possible score of 100 is then divided into three categories, namely: Obstacles to Access (25 pts.), Limits on Content (35 pts.), and Violations of User Rights (40 pts.). These three categories are then further split into several specific questions, which are then used by Freedom House to determine a country’s appropriate standing. 

Countries that attain a grade between 70-100 are classified as Free, those with scores between 40-69 are noted as being Partly Free, and nations with a score from 0-39 are considered to be Not Free.

Freedom House’s full methodology can be found here.

Key Events

Vietnam’s rating for 2021 in Freedom House’s report is 22, which classifies it as being Not Free. This score is 2 points lower than its rating of 24 in 2019 but is equal to its 2020 score, which was also 22. However, just because Vietnam’s rating is the same in last year’s report does not mean that the situation in the country has remained unchanged. For instance, in 2020, Freedom House reported a temporary connectivity disruption in Đồng Tâm coupled with Facebook’s servers in the country were taken offline in February 2020, which led to a lower accessibility score for that year. No similar issue has happened so far in 2021, which leads to Vietnam having a higher rating in this category. In the same vein, several issues in the past may no longer be present, and several issues today may not have been problematic one or two years prior. 

Freedom on the Net 2021 report begins by listing several key events that affect Vietnam’s overall score. 

Firstly, the report states that the Vietnamese government had threatened to shut down Facebook’s activities in the country if the company refuses to comply with the government’s requests to restrict content it deems to be “sensitive” or “critical.” 

Secondly, the report discusses the prior elections and the Vietnamese government’s censorship, arrests, and smear campaigns related to several independent candidates. Related to this are the long-running and ongoing arrests of activists and bloggers. 

Lastly, the report mentions the draft decree regarding personal data protection, which was released in February 2021; if passed, this would require online platforms to collect and store the personal data of Vietnamese users for the purposes of providing it to the government upon request. 

These events give us much-needed context into how Freedom House came to its rate for Vietnam in its 2021 report. 

Internet Freedom in Vietnam

Regarding Obstacles to Access, Vietnam scores 12 out of a maximum of 25 points, or around 48 percent of the total. The report states that internet penetration in the country is at around 68.70 percent of the population and that smartphone penetration is at around 61.37 percent. Internet prices have also become more affordable, even to those in rural areas. Despite these positives, connectivity remains an issue for those in extreme poverty and for ethnic minorities who live in remote mountainous regions. 

Any business or firm is allowed to operate as an internet service provider in Vietnam; however, some informal barriers prevent many from doing so. Currently, the Vietnam Posts and Telecommunications Group (VNPT) and Viettel dominate the industry, with these companies controlling 40 percent and 38 percent of the market respectively. The mobile sector is no different, with Viettel accounting for 50.5 percent, VinaPhone 24.6 percent, and MobiFone 21.1 percent, comprising the lion’s share of all subscriptions. As such, smaller companies in both the internet and mobile sectors cannot hope to compete with these already established businesses. 

The Vietnamese government still retains the ability to restrict connectivity on a whim. Various government agencies tasked with regulating and overseeing digital technology remain secretive and operate without public oversight. 

Regarding Limits on Content, Vietnam scores 6 out of a maximum of 35 points, or roughly around 17 percent of the total. 

The Vietnamese government actively and continuously blocks or filters any form of content that, from their point of view, challenges the ruling Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP). High-profile blogs, individuals with many followers, content which promotes religious organizations, and local and international news websites which are critical of the regime are often the targets of government censorship. This 2021 Freedom House report states that Vietnam’s Department of Cybersecurity and High-Tech Crime Prevention has “monitored and blocked almost 3,400 overseas websites that have ‘published harmful and toxic information’ in 2020.” The regime has also threatened to shut down Facebook, and so, even this social media giant was forced to comply and agree to remove content that the VCP deems “anti-state.”

The passing of the controversial Cyber Security Law in January 2019 has also led to the expeditious removal of content. State authorities have “imposed heavy fines and suspended online publications” for having comments that criticize the regime on their platforms. In addition, mounting government pressure has made social media platforms subservient to the government’s wishes, and in effect, they restrict content that the VCP deems inappropriate. 

The social media accounts of activists and dissidents are also under the constant threat of being suspended for “violating the platform’s community standards.” Even normal internet users, commentators, and journalists have to practice some degree of self-censorship or risk being detained or questioned by the authorities. 

This situation of mass censorship and control gives the Vietnamese government the perfect setting to be able to influence, sway, and dictate public opinion. The report quotes the Oxford Internet Institute (OII) which claims, “Vietnam employs a network of approximately 10,000 people that manipulates information on Facebook and YouTube [, and at] least one government agency is involved.” 

Regarding Violations of User Rights, Vietnam scores 4 out of a maximum of 40 points, or roughly 10 percent of the total. 

Even if the Vietnamese Constitution affirms the rights of freedom of expression, access to information, press freedom, and the like, these are not actually protected by the Vietnamese state. Freedom on the Net 2021 report states that “police routinely flout due process, arresting bloggers and online activists without a warrant or retaining them in custody beyond the maximum period allowed by law.” And it says further that the Cybersecurity Law also “prohibits a wide range of activities conducted online” in addition to putting additional pressure on internet users and social media platforms. 

As of June 2021, according to the report, 235 activists are being held in detention for practicing their freedom of expression. Several journalists, activists, and even ordinary everyday users were also given outrageous prison terms or made to pay hefty fines for their online activities for allegedly violating several provisions under Articles 117 and 331 of the Penal Code. Prominent journalist Pham Thi Doan Trang, a co-founder and editor of The Vietnamese Magazine, has been detained since October 2020 and charged with “creating, storing, and disseminating information, documents, items, and publications opposing the Socialist Republic of Vietnam” under Article 117.

Also mentioned in the report is the controversy surrounding Bluezone, a COVID-19 tracing app. People were unaware that this application disclosed private user information to the government; in June 2021, the state announced that it would sanction people who did not have this app installed on their mobile phones when they entered certain public areas. This is a blatant infringement of a person’s right to privacy. 

Cases of intimidation and physical violence by the authorities are also noted in the Freedom House report and the names of prominent bloggers and activists who were put under surveillance and de facto house arrest. A notable case cited is the situation of Le Anh Hung, a blogger and democracy activist. Hung was arrested in July 2018 for criticizing Vietnam’s one-party communist state in online posts. He was “beaten with a metal folding chair, tied to his bed, and forcibly medicated while being held in a psychiatric hospital without his consent” in July 2020.

Conclusion

The state of internet freedom in Vietnam continues to remain abysmal and disheartening, with no improvement in terms of the protection of the rights of individual users. The state maintains its tight grip on the flow of information by pressuring or outright censoring social media platforms, journalists, and media outlets and by stifling any discussion by everyday people through the internet. It’s business as usual for the VCP even during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in the country. 

Yet, the report points out that “young, educated Vietnamese people are increasingly turning to blogs, social media platforms, and other online news sources for information, rather than state television and radio broadcasters” and that “tools for circumventing censorship” exist and can be easily found. Hence, while the state may continue on its crusade to monopolize the flow of information, its efforts are failing; the truth is still being spread, and the Vietnamese people are always looking for ways to circumvent the walls being built by the regime. 


Trinh Huu Long, an editor of The Vietnamese Magazine and co-director of Legal Initiatives for Vietnam, is the author of the Vietnam chapter of Freedom House’s Freedom on the Net 2021.

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