(New York) – Vietnamese police arrested a pro-democracy activist on September 23, 2019 based on his Facebook postings, Human Rights Watch said today. The government should immediately release the activist, Nguyen Quoc Duc Vuong, and drop the charges against him.
Police in the southern province of Lam Dong have charged Nguyen Quoc Duc Vuong with “making, storing, disseminating or propagandizing information, materials and products that aim to oppose the State of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam,” under article 117 of the country’s penal code. Under articles 173 and 74 of Vietnam’s Criminal Procedure Code, the national security charge means he can be both detained and denied access to legal counsel until the police conclude their investigation, a situation that is conducive to mistreatment or torture.
“The government thought to silence Nguyen Quoc Duc Vuong by detaining him for expressing his opinions on Facebook,” said John Sifton, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “But this has only focused more attention on his views, and the government’s repressive efforts to censor online material.”
While it is unclear exactly which of his Facebook postings the government objected to, his account reflects a wide range of independent views that the Vietnam Communist Party and government might find objectionable. None, however, involve incitement to crime, violence, hate speech, or other content that can be subject to any criminal charge consistent with the right to freedom of expression, which Vietnam pledged to respect by joining the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Nguyen Quoc Duc Vuong has expressed views supporting democracy in Vietnam and criticized the Communist Party of Vietnam for corruption and monopolizing power. In one of his livestreams he said: “I am not certain that the entire state apparatus is corrupt, but I am 100 percent certain that those who have been involved in corruption are Communist Party members. Vietnam only allows one single party and does not allow any competing opposition.”
In other posts or livestreams, he has shared news about protests in Hong Kong and voiced support for a change of government in Venezuela. He has also shared stories about land confiscation issues in Vietnam and raised cases of various Vietnamese political prisoners including Tran Huynh Duy Thuc, Nguyen Viet Dung, and Phan Kim Khanh.
Nguyen Quoc Duc Vuong, 28, lives in Don Duong district, northeast of Ho Chi Minh City. According to an official communist party journal, in June 2018, he participated in a major protest in Ho Chi Minh City against the draft law on special economic zones and the newly passed cybersecurity law. The police reportedly fined him 750,000 VND (approximately US$32).
After his September arrest, state media quoted police, saying: “[O]ver the last two years, Nguyen Quoc Duc Vuong has used social media to make and distribute materials, propagandize and distort, blacken and slander the regime, offend the memory of President Ho Chi Minh and oppose the State of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.” Police officials said they had warned him not to post critical material online, but that he did not stop.
His arrest is a part of an ongoing crackdown against critics and pro-democracy campaigners. During the first nine months of 2019, the Vietnamese authorities convicted at least 11 people, including Nguyen Ngoc Anh, Vu Thi Dung, and Nguyen Thi Ngoc Suong, and sentenced them to between two and nine years in prison for criticizing the government.
Vietnam’s problematic cybersecurity law went into effect in January. This overly broad and vague law gives the authorities wide discretion to censor free expression and requires service providers, including Facebook, to take down content the authorities consider offensive within 24 hours of receiving a request.
As of October 7, Nguyen Quoc Duc Vuong’s past posts remained on Facebook; but other posts by detained human rights defenders have often been taken down.
Several internet companies, as well as concerned governments and donors, have privately raised serious concerns with Vietnam’s new cybersecurity law and other abusive laws, and pushed back on some requests for content restriction. They should now publicly speak out against Vietnamese laws used to stifle free expression, Human Rights Watch said.
“Facebook, as one of the most widely used communications platforms in Vietnam, has leverage to publicly raise human rights concerns with the government,” Sifton said. “While the company is subject to pressure from Vietnam, it also has clout because of its immense popularity in the country.”
In August, Information and Communications Minister Nguyen Manh Hung said Facebook had complied with “70 to 75 percent” of the government’s recent requests to restrict content, up from “about 30 percent” previously. Among the materials Facebook removed, according to the ministry, were “more than 200 links to articles with content opposing the Party and the State.” It is unclear how the ministry arrived at these figures. The ministry did not disclose the bases for requests, and whether they were reported as violations of Vietnamese law or of Facebook’s “Community Standards.” (It is likely that authorities sometimes report material they consider “illegal” not as legal violations but instead under unrelated Community Standards violations, and then count removal as compliance.)
The ministry also said it asked Facebook to limit live-streaming capabilities on its platforms to accounts that Facebook has authenticated. It is unclear how Facebook will be expected to do that, or what criteria authenticated accounts would have to satisfy. The ministry said it told the company to “pre-censor” online content and remove advertisements “that spread fake news related to political issues upon request from the government.”
Facebook has previously told Human Rights Watch that its standards relating to takedowns and geographic blocking of content “are global.” The process for taking down or blocking content, Facebook said in a written communication, is the “same in Vietnam as it is around the world.” Reported content is first reviewed against the company’s Community Standards; if it passes muster, Facebook says it will then assess whether the government request is legally valid under local law and international human rights law.
Vietnam should bring its laws into line with international human rights standards, which require any restrictions on freedom of expression to be necessary and proportionate to fulfill legitimate aims, Human Rights Watch said, and internet companies should publicly press the government to do the same.