In Vietnam, social media as existential threat to the freedom of expression

Members of the IAJVN (Independent Association of Journalist Vietnam) at their trial (source: state media). Provided by The Vietnamese Magazine.

As more and more Vietnamese independent journalists and writers turn to social media to report news and criticize government policies, the authorities are responding with stepped-up pressure on the users of platforms such as Facebook, YouTube, TikTok, and Twitter, some of the few but limited alternatives in Vietnam’s tightly controlled internet.

The crackdown on the media in Vietnam was stepped up in October 2020 when, a court in Can Tho convicted Truong Chau Huu Danh, Doan Kien Giang, Le The Thang, Nguyen Phuoc Trung Bao, and Nguyen Thanh Nha, five of the country’s best known independent journalists. The five were sentenced under Article 331 of the penal code, which criminalizes “abusing democratic rights and freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the state.” The ruling also banned all five from working as journalists for three years after completing their sentences. Danh was sentenced to four years and six months in prison; Giang and Thang to three years each; and Bao and Nha to two years each.

The journalists all worked for Bao Sach (Clean Newspaper), a Facebook-based independent news group that the court alleged had published distorted information and defamed the government. The Facebook page, which covered alleged government corruption and was pulled down after Danh’s arrest in December 2020, had more than 10,000 followers.

The year 2021 saw continued attacks on independent journalists in the country. According to the 88 Project, which advocates for human rights in Vietnam, during the year, a dozen journalists, bloggers, and writers were arrested along with 15 online commentators, a sharp increase over recent years. 

On January 5, a court in Ho Chi Minh City sentenced Pham Chi Dung, Nguyen Tuong Thuy, and Le Huu Minh Tuan, three freelance journalists known for their criticism of the government, to between 11 and 15 years in prison, after finding them guilty of “making, storing, spreading information, materials, items for the purpose of opposing the state” at a one-day trial, the Ministry of Public Security said. All three men were members of the Independent Journalists Association of Vietnam, founded by Dung in 2014. The charge, under Article 117 of Vietnam’s Penal Code, is frequently used to silence critics of the government. Dung was jailed for 15 years and Thuy and Tuan for 11 years each. 

Human rights organizations were quick to criticize the sentences.

“Even by its own deeply repressive standards, the severity of the sentences show the depths being reached by Vietnam’s censors,” said Emerlynne Gil, deputy regional director for Amnesty International.

Human Rights Watch called the charges “bogus.”

More high-profile arrests and sentencings followed during the year.

In July 2021, Le Van Dung, a well-known activist who had thousands of followers on Facebook, was arrested after being on the run for more than a month. Dung, who uses the name Le Dung Vova, was arrested on charges of “making, storing, spreading information, materials, and items for the purpose of opposing the state.” A court in Hanoi sentenced the independent journalist and activist to five years in prison for posting about political and socioeconomic issues in live streaming videos on social media.

Celebrated independent journalist Pham Doan Trang, who was arrested in Ho Chi Minh City on 7 October 7, 2020, was sentenced to nine years in prison on December 14, 2021, by the People’s Court of Hanoi. She was charged under Article 88 of the 1999 Criminal Code which criminalizes “making, storing, distributing or disseminating information, documents and items against the Socialist Republic of Viet Nam.”  

Pham Doan Trang in Ho Chi Minh City in October 2020, three days before her arrest. Photo taken by Paul Mooney.

Pham is the recipient of a handful of prestigious international awards, including the 2022 International Press Freedom Award, given to her by the Committee to Protect Journalists, and she was one of the three laureates of the 2022 Martin Ennals Award. 

The Vietnamese authorities frequently use Article 88 (and later Article 117) of the Criminal Code to punish human rights defenders, independent journalists, and writers.

It’s no surprise that Vietnam continues to perform poorly in international rankings for freedom of expression. In 2021, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) ranked the country 175th in the world for press freedom with just five countries ranked lower. The country was rated “Not Free” by Freedom House in both its Freedom in the World and Freedom on the Net annual reports. And the Committee to Protect Journalists ranked Vietnam as one of the world’s top five offenders in the jailing of journalists. 

Facebook has been a major platform for the Vietnamese hoping to share and access independent news and information, and the platform has come under special government scrutiny. Vietnam, which is reported to be among Facebook’s top 10 markets by user numbers, is reported to generate some $1 billion in annual revenue for the company and has been reluctant to risk its market in the country. 

Facebook is not restricted in Vietnam, where it has an estimated 60 million to 70 million users. Tech experts say that Vietnam lacks the technical expertise and the money to enforce a Chinese-style “Great Firewall.” Furthermore, the government is reluctant to clamp down harder on Facebook as many businesses rely on it to do business. YouTube has an estimated 60 million users in Vietnam, while TikTok has 20 million.

As a result, the Vietnamese government has chosen to focus on restricting the sharing of sensitive news.

In 2017, the Communist Party established Force 47, an Army online information warfare unit backed by the Ministry of National Defense. It’s believed that Vietnam is the only Southeast Asian country to publicly admit to having a military cyber unit.

The group is made up of some 10,000 “red and competent” members, implying that they have both technical expertise and good political ideals. Force 47 monitors political content online and lashes out against those who express “wrong views.” There is no official definition of a “wrong view.” Force 47 takes its name from Directive 47, a policy statement issued by the army’s General Political Department on January 8, 2016. 

According to Reuters, since its inception, Force 47 has established hundreds of Facebook groups and pages, publishing thousands of pro-government articles and comments and gathering as many as 300,000 followers. 

The nebulous group also leverages the built-in reporting tools of social media platforms to manipulate community standards via mass reporting of unwelcome content so that sensitive items are automatically removed.

Do Nam Trung, a prominent Vietnamese activist who was sentenced to 10 years in prison on charges of “distributing anti-state propaganda” in December 2021, was a frequent target of government-backed cyber trolls. His Facebook account was constantly under mass reporting by Force 47 members, which frequently resulted in the temporary suspension of his account.

Force 47 has also established anonymous Gmail and Yahoo email addresses and accounts on YouTube and Twitter.

Reuters quotes Facebook as saying that it has taken down some Force 47 accounts for “coordinating attempts to mass report content.” However, the news agency says that many of the accounts and groups it previously identified remain active as they operate under real names and thus do not violate Facebook policies.

The 2018 Law on Cybersecurity, which went into effect in 2019, has also increased pressure on international media companies. The law includes provisions requiring internet service providers to block content felt to be critical of the State.

Article 16 of the Law includes vague restrictions against criticism of the State and calls for the removal of offending information within 24 hours. Also troubling, the law requires that international social media firms store user data in Vietnam and hand over user information to the government upon request. 

In April 2020, Vietnam significantly slowed traffic on Facebook’s local servers, forcing the company to increase the censorship of political content. Months later, the government threatened to shut down Facebook completely in Vietnam if it did not do a better job of restricting local access to more content. The 88 Project said the action followed Vietnam’s growing dissatisfaction with Facebook for failing to comply with the 2018 Cybersecurity Law.

According to official statistics from Vietnam’s Ministry of Information and Communication, during the first quarter of this year, Facebook complied with 90 percent of Hanoi’s requests to remove information. Alphabet Inc., which owns YouTube, Google, and Twitter Inc. complied with 93 percent and Tiktok with 73 percent.

In a statement at the time, Facebook said that the Vietnamese government “has instructed us to restrict access to content which it has deemed to be illegal in Vietnam. We believe freedom of expression is a fundamental human right, and work hard to protect and defend this important civil liberty around the world. However, we have taken this action to ensure our services remain available and usable for millions of people in Vietnam, who rely on them every day.”

In December, Amnesty International issued a 78-page report on the complicity of tech giants in blocking content considered critical of the government, pointing to the fact that several bloggers have been jailed for postings critical of Vietnam. 

“In the last decade, the right to freedom of expression flourished on Facebook and YouTube in Vietnam. More recently, however, authorities began focusing on peaceful online expression as an existential threat to the regime,” said Ming Yu Hah, Amnesty International’s deputy regional director for campaigns.

“Today these platforms have become hunting grounds for censors, military cyber-troops, and state-sponsored trolls. The platforms themselves are not merely letting it happen – they’re increasingly complicit.”

In 2021, Vietnam named a senior military officer to head up the powerful Commission for Propaganda and Education of the ruling Communist Party’s Central Committee. Senior Lieutenant General Nguyen Trong Nghia, 59, former vice chairman of the General Department of Politics of Vietnam’s People’s Army, was the architect of the creation of Task Force 47.

RFA quoted independent journalists from Vietnam as saying that the appointment was expected to mark a new tightening of free expression on social media.

Most worrisome, however, is the news that Vietnam is preparing a new set of rules that would require social media companies to take down sensitive content within 24 hours. Reuters reported in April, quoting three people with direct knowledge of the new policies, that the planned amendments would make Vietnam one of the most stringent regimes for social media companies, and would also significantly improve the ability of the authorities to control “anti-state” activity. 

Reuters said that the 24-hour time frame to remove “illegal content and services” will have no grace period, while active “illegal live streams” will have to be blocked within three hours. Social media firms have also been informed that content that allegedly harms national security must be removed immediately. 

Finally, the news agency said that companies that do not comply with the new regulations could have their platforms banned in Vietnam. At present, social media companies normally have several days to respond to requests from the government for the removal of information on social media.

Reuters said that the amendments were expected to be signed by Prime Minister Pham Minh Ching in May and that they would go into effect in July. As of the time of this writing, however, there has been no official confirmation of the reported amendments.

Human rights observers warn that the restrictive new amendments could seriously worsen the internet environment in Vietnam.

“In Vietnam, social media, including Facebook, is one of the very few places for local people to express their opposition,” Amnesty’s Ming Yu Hah said in a statement. “They face the risk of being imprisoned for years if their posts are deemed to violate the law.”

“Such harsh laws are an existential threat to the freedom of expression in Vietnam,” she said.