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.
- 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/
- 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/
- 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/
- 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/
- 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
- 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/
- 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
- 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/
- 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/
- 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/
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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