September 19, 2012 | By Eva Galperin

Threats to Internet Freedom on the Rise in Vietnam

Internet Censorship watchdog OpenNetInitiative has released an updated report on the state of online freedom of expression in Vietnam and the verdict is grim. The Communist republic has placed heavy restrictions on the dissemination of information for decades, but in 2012 the government has introduced regulations that would provide new powers to censor and criminalize online speech.

Most worrying is the introduction of the Decree on the Management, Provision, Use of Internet Services and Internet Content Online draft decree aimed at regulating domestic Internet use. The 60-article document is filled with alarmingly vague language, including bans on “abusing the provision and use of the Internet and information on the web” to “oppose the Socialist Republic of Vietnam,” “undermining the grand unity of all people” and “undermining the fine customs and traditions of the nation.” It also requires Internet filtration of all such offensive content, requires real-name identification for all personal websites and profiles, and creates legal liability for intermediaries such as blogs and ISPs, for failing to regulate third-party contributors, triggering grave concerns about the decree’s impact on domestic online service providers.

The decree furthermore attempts to require all foreign and domestic companies that provide online services to cooperate with the government to take down prohibited content. For international companies without a business presence in Vietnam, the law would “encourage” them to establish offices or representatives in the country in order to hold them accountable for implementation of the decree. In an earlier draft of the law, foreign businesses would have been required to obtain legal status and set up servers in Vietnam.

According to ONI’s analysis, the implementation date of the these new regulations “remains unclear.”

Just as important as the new regulations, the ongoing harassment, intimidation, and detainment of bloggers who have spoken out against the government poses an immediate threat to online free expression. Seventeen social activists and bloggers have been arrested since last August, some of which have received harsh prison sentences, and many of which have been detained for over a year without trail.

This summer, the mother of imprisoned Vietnamese blogger Ta Phong Tan died after setting herself on fire to protest her daughter's detention on charges spreading anti-state propaganda. Ta Phong Tan, a former police officer who documented social injustice on her blog Conglysuthat (Vietnamese for "Justice and Truth"), was arrested in September of 2011, according to the France-based exile support group Vietnam Committee on Human Rights. She was also a member of the Free Journalists Network of Vietnam, a press freedom group that Nguyen Van Hai helped found and which now operates from exile. Tan was to be tried along with bloggers Nguyen Van Hai and Phan Thanh Hai who posted political articals to the banned Vietnamese website “Free Journalists Club.” That trial has been delayed while authorities investigate Tan’s mother’s death.

In August, EFF joined with 11 concerned organizations, including Human Rights Watch and Index on Censorship in signing a joint letter addressed to Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung requesting the immediate release of all 17 social activists and bloggers.

Dear Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung,

As you receive this letter, seventeen Vietnamese social activists, including bloggers and citizen journalists have been in jail for up to a year. Most have not even been brought to trial. These seventeen individuals have been arbitrarily detained because of their work as citizen journalists, environmental advocates, anti-corruption crusaders and human rights defenders.

Over the last year, the international human rights community has gotten to know their names: Dang Xuan Dieu, Ho Duc Hoa, Paulus Le Van Son, Nguyen Van Duyet, Nong Hung Anh, Nguyen Van Oai, Chu Manh Son, Dau Van Duong, Tran Huu Duc, Nguyen Xuan Anh, Ho Van Oanh, Thai Van Dung, Tran Minh Nhat, Ta Phong Tan, Tran Vu Anh Binh, Nguyen Dinh Cuong, and Hoang Phong.

These individuals have simply sought to exercise their rights to freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and association guaranteed under international law. What they have in common is a passion for social justice, religious freedom, and involvement in the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer.

Unfortunately, they have been detained pursuant to vague, ill-defined statutes under the Vietnamese penal code: Article 79, which effectively restricts freedom of association and Article 88, which essentially limits freedom of speech. The recent petition filed by Stanford Law School’s Allen Weiner to the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention argued very well that their continued detention violates international law.

On March 12, 2012 nine international NGOs (ACAT France, Access, ARTICLE 19, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Front Line Defenders, Index On Censorship, Media Defence South East Asia, Media Legal Defence Initiative, Southeast Asian Press Alliance) sent you a letter which called for their immediate release and access to legal counsel. Since then, their situation has not improved but rather worsened: Four of these activists have been unjustly sentenced to prison terms and the remainder are being held without access to a lawyer. Blogger Paulus Le Son was transferred to Hoa Lo jail in Hanoi which is known for its harsh prison conditions. Another citizen journalist, Dang Xuan Dieu, has not been allowed a single family visitation over the last year.

We respectfully remind you of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam’s obligations under international law to protect the rights of its citizens when it ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

These rights are also protected under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which is a matter customary international law. Therefore, freedom of association, freedom of speech and the right to a fair trial are basic rights which should be protected under Vietnam’s legal system and not unjustifiably curtailed.

We believe Vietnam as a country would benefit from greater respect for the civil liberties of its citizens and Vietnamese society would be richer with the contributions of all its citizens. We urgently call on your government to withdraw all the charges against those who are held pending trial and for those who have been sentenced to be unconditionally exonerated.

Sincerely,

Christine Laroque, Asia Programs Manager, ACAT France
Brett Solomon, Executive Director, Access Now
Nguyen Ngoc, Associated Vietnamese Writers in Exile Centre
Jillian York, Director for International Freedom of Expression, Electronic Frontier Foundation
Kamila Shamsie, Writers at Risk Committee Co-Chair, English PEN
Mary Lawlor, Director, Front Line Defenders
Phil Robertson, Deputy Director, Asia Division, Human Rights Watch
Rohan Jayasekera, Deputy CEO, Index on Censorship
H.R. Dipendra, Executive Director, Media Defence – Southeast Asia
Peter Noorlander, Executive Director, Media Legal Defence Initiative
Gayathry Venkiteswaran, Executive Director, Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA)
Nguyen Le Nhan Quyen, Vietnamese League for Human Rights

EFF remains deeply concerned about the deteriorating state of Internet freedom in Vietnam and will continue to monitor the situation closely.


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