(New York) – United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton should publicly press Vietnam to respect freedom of expression and Internet freedom, and release prominent Internet bloggers when she visits Hanoi on July 10, 2012.
Restrictions on Internet freedom have been a serious problem in Vietnam since May 2004, when the government began to firewall critical websites.
A new draft Decree on Management, Provision, and Use of Internet Services and Information on the Network revealed by Ministry of Information and Communications in April 2012 extends many speech crimes to the Internet and requires companies to filter whatever the government finds objectionable. In a country where newspapers, TV, and radio are strictly controlled by the government, the Internet is one of the few bastions of free expression.
“Secretary Clinton should urge Vietnam to strip out rights-restricting provisions of the draft Internet decree before it reaches the National Assembly,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “As written, the decree is a recipe for further criminal prosecutions of bloggers and free speech activists because almost anything the Vietnam authorities construe as criticism could be banned.”
Article 5 of the draft decree prohibits any act “abusing the provision and use of the Internet and information on the web” which can be arbitrarily interpreted as to “oppose the Socialist Republic of Vietnam,” “undermining the grand unity of all people,” or “undermining the fine customs and traditions of the nation.” Article 24 requires foreign-based companies who provide information in Vietnamese language to collaborate with the authorities to filter and eliminate any prohibited information interpreted as “prohibited acts” stated in article 5. Similarly, article 25 requires the filtering of any information on the Internet interpreted as “prohibited acts” stated in article 5. And article 29 requires individuals who use domestic and foreign social network services to make sure that any information she circulates and/or provides links to does not contain prohibited content.
Human Rights Watch said that Vietnam has ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and is obliged under article 19 of that treaty to respect freedom of expression. Article 69 of Vietnam’s constitution also establishes the right to freedom of speech and right to receive information.
On May 23, the Global Network Initiative (GNI), a coalition of civil society organizations and corporations that includes Human Rights Watch, issued a press release expressing deep concern over “the free speech and privacy implications of the Government of Vietnam’s Draft” of the Internet decree. GNI noted that the draft legislation “if made into law, would oblige Internet companies and other providers of information to Internet users in Vietnam to cooperate with the government in enforcing overbroad provisions that are inconsistent with international human rights standards.” GNI urged the Vietnamese government to “address these issues as it finalizes the decree.”
The US Embassy in Hanoi also raised concerns on June 6 in written comments on the draft of the Internet decree sent to the Vietnam government, highlighting serious issues involving the potential human rights and economic impacts of the decree. The Embassy called the provisions in article 5 of the decree “overly broad and vague” and raised concern about intermediary liability requirements because “requiring service providers to enforce such broad prohibitions and be subject to liability for failure to do so will likely lead to restrictions on legitimate content.”
“Clinton should press Vietnam to tear down its Internet firewall, and live up to its international human rights commitments, starting with respect for freedom of expression, association, and peaceful public assembly,” Robertson said. “Ending Vietnam’s backsliding on human rights is a critical test that must be met for any sort of deeper US-Vietnam relationship to thrive.”
Persecution of Bloggers
Vietnam continues to harass, intimidate, arrest, and imprison bloggers and online activists, often using draconian provisions of the penal code, including article 88 that prohibits “conducting propaganda against the state” and sets out penalties of up to 20 years in prison. In the last three years, Vietnam authorities have imprisoned more than a dozen prominent bloggers and activists for using the Internet to express their opinions and advance their causes. The list included bloggers Tran Huynh Duy Thuc, Vi Duc Hoi, Ho Thi Bich Khuong, Nguyen Tien Trung, and Nguyen Ba Dang, and Internet-using activists like Father Nguyen Van Ly, Dr. Cu Huy Ha Vu, lawyer Le Cong Dinh, and others.
The police have also detained three of the country’s most prominent bloggers and activists for almost a year without trial for using the Internet to exercise their rights. These bloggers are the three founding members of Club for Free Journalists – Nguyen Van Hai (a.k.a Dieu Cay), Phan Thanh Hai (a.k.a Anhbasg), and Ta Phong Tan. Several other bloggers, including blogger Le Van Son (a.k.a Paulus Le Son), Le Thanh Tung, and Dinh Dang Dinh, have also been held for many months without trial.
Such actions violate rights and run counter to the growing international recognition of the importance of protecting freedom of expression on the Internet. On June 29, 2012, the United Nations Human Rights Council adopted by consensus a resolution on the Promotion, Protection, and Enjoyment of Human Rights on the Internet that “affirms that same rights that people have offline must also be protected online, in particular, freedom of expression, which is applicable regardless of frontiers and through any media of one’s choice…”
The Vietnamese government has recently indicated it plans to seek a seat on the UN Human Rights Council in the near future.
As a first step to show its commitment to the principles of human rights and respect for UN decisions, Human Rights Watch said that Vietnam should publicly guarantee it will respect freedom of the Internet and demonstrate that commitment by immediately and unconditionally releasing all people who have been detained and/or imprisoned for their opinions and activism on the Internet and revising the draft Internet decree.
“These political prisoners and detainees are using the Internet to exercise basic rights,” said Robertson. “By detaining activists and pressing forward with rights-violating provisions of the draft Internet decree, Hanoi is showing just how problematic its candidacy for a seat on the UN Human Rights Council is.”