On September 18, Nguyen Van Oai, a Vietnamese citizen journalists and activist, was arrested and sentenced to five years in jail and four under house arrest. On July 30, Truong Minh Duc, a workers’ rights activist, was detained by the police while taking a morning stroll, and now faces charges of “attempting to overthrow the government,” which carries with it the death penalty. Oai and Duc are two of the 11 dissidents arrested, convicted, or outright exiled over the course of this summer—one of the worst in recent memory for Vietnamese dissidents. The “Brotherhood of Democracy,” an online pro-democracy watchdog group, claims that the recent uptake in arrests has been the “biggest challenge” they’ve faced since the group’s founding in 2013.
Vietnam’s violations of free speech rights are by no means a new phenomenon. As of today, it is estimated that the country has 212 political prisoners behind bars, with countless more held under house arrest. But what has recently drawn the attention of many Vietnamese citizens is the increasing erosion of free speech on Vietnam’s online and social media outlets. Why is the crackdown intensifying now? The current situation can be traced back to the Formosa Ha Tinh Steel plant environmental disaster that took place in April 2016. The disaster set off mass protests in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, organized online, with citizen journalists and social media users joining their voices in condemning the Vietnamese government’s response to the crisis. The government reacted by shutting down Facebook and Instagram for several days.
It is important to keep in mind that although free speech is guaranteed under Vietnam’s 1992 constitution, it can be suspended at the whim of the Communist Party. Much as in any other communist state, grounds for prosecution and imprisonment include the vaguest of charges. Article 258 of Vietnam’s Penal Code imposes penalties of up to seven years in prison for “abusing democratic freedoms.” A decree passed in 2006 makes “reactionary ideology or culture” a crime subject to fines and imprisonment of up to 20 years. Various other provisions criminalize political speech on charges of “disrupting security” and “conducting propaganda against the State of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.” Even if one ignores the specifics, a 2003 ordinance forbids the general acquisition and dissemination of anti-government materials altogether.
Even more disconcerting is the fact that this massive government overreach extends into the online social media realm as well. Laws known as Decree 72 (enacted in 2013) and Decree 174 (enacted in 2015) forbid sharing information that opposes the state (including, strangely, information taken from state media), and ban any form of criticism of “the government, the Party, or national heroes” on social media. The aforementioned 2003 decree requires website owners to sign up with the Vietnam Internet Network Information Center, an agency of the Ministry of Information and Communications. In other words, there’s also comprehensive supervision of online activity on an individual level.
Much like the Chinese government, Vietnam imposes censorship through its Internet Service Providers (ISPs). Access to high-traffic websites and blogs critical of the government can be restricted at the Party’s discretion. Since most of Vietnam’s 16 ISPs are controlled by the government, it makes such a task a lot easier, considering that 74 percent of the entire market is controlled by the state-owned Vietnam Posts and Telecommunications Group.
Aside from outright censorship, the government uses other indirect means of counteracting the dissemination of negative information about the regime. In 2013, Hanoi’s head of propaganda, Ho Quang Loi, openly admitted that Hanoi had a “900-strong team” of “internet polemicists” who act on behalf of the government’s propaganda machine. Worse still, Vietnamese activists have fallen victim to widespread targeted cyberattacks involving malware, denial-of-service attacks, and phishing in recent years. No website or blog appears to be safe so long as it deviates from the Party-approved political narrative. The US-based Electronic Frontier Foundation and Associated Press journalists were targeted as well, proving that the regime will go after its critics in other countries as well.
Unfortunately, Vietnamese activists and journalists experience more than just censorship and technical disruption. Individual internet and social media users have been actively persecuted by the government for the opinions they express. Examples abound. Back in November 2015, a local schoolteacher working in the An Giang province received a $220 fine for the “crime” of calling the provincial chairman “arrogant” on her Facebook page. In 2016, Nguyen Huu Vinh, founder of the news website Ba Sam, and his editorial assistant were sentenced to five and three years of prison, respectively, under Article 258. In June 2017, a prominent blogger with the online handle “Mother Mushroom” was sentenced to 10 years in prison on charges of spreading anti-state propaganda. According to public security minister General Tran Dai Quang, from June 2012 to November 2015 the Vietnamese government arrested approximately 2,680 people for allegedly violating national security. The government even resorts to physical intimidation: In 2015 close to 40 bloggers and anti-government activists were beaten up on the streets of Vietnam by anonymous thugs.
Despite the Communist Party’s best efforts, social media platforms are so diffuse that they’re hard to suppress completely. Vietnamese dissidents are becoming bolder and bolder about using platforms like Facebook to document and publicize the harassment they face and to rally moral and financial support for the unjustly persecuted. The number of Vietnam’s Facebook users already stands at 45 million. The larger it gets, the more difficult it will be for the Party to monopolize political speech in the coming years.