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Social Media Censorship in Vietnam

History has shown that the best weapon in the fight for freedom has always been information. Traditional media used to challenge the state, but was easily curtailed. Now social media is facing the same attack, with countries like China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Singapore and Thailand all trying to monitor and censor sites like Facebook and Twitter.

 

In fact today, rather than being united in terms of peace, military cooperation and commerce, the vision of a single ASEAN community, is united over the heavy regulation of the media. In Vietnam specifically, many sites are blocked. These include sites of expatriate political parties, international human rights organizations, and politically or religiously critical materials that might undermine the Communist Party.

 

These regulation efforts are often called the "Bamboo Firewall". But advances in technology have consistently diminished the effectiveness of censorship. Regulatory responsibility in Vietnam is shared between two ministries based on subject matter. The Ministry of Culture and Information focusing on sexually explicit, superstitious, or violent content, while the Ministry of Public Security monitors political content.

 

Recent literature has termed media censorship as “soft authoritarianism”. In Vietnam there is some evidence that policy, rather than personality and patronage, guides elite politics in the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV). Thus state reform is not as coherent and clear. This is because Party leaders don't have consensus across the spectrum of political and business elites and use the press to manage a growing number of voices in the political system.

 

This management is becoming increasingly untenable with escalating volumes of political and corruption scandals. The media in Vietnam is semi-democratic and censorship will need to be understood as a tussle between conservative power, the reformist agenda, and freedom of the civil society.

 

Censorship of the internet in Southeast Asian is a sad sign that democracy is regressing, with public officials threatening to use legal action against critics.

Vietnam’s mainstream media remains under strict state surveillance and social media networks are regularly blocked. Bloggers are often prosecuted and given prison sentences.

 

The most controversial of measures taken by Vietnam is the Decree 72, or the "Management, Provision, Use of Internet Services and Information Content Online". This was signed by Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung on July 15, 2013. The decree bans the sharing of online news stories on social media sites. The decree has a confusing number of provisions. Clause 20.4 states that a personal information webpage is not allowed to provide aggregated information without defining “aggregated information”.

It basically means the general public is not able to air or share any political views by making the exchange of information a criminal act. The Deputy Minister of Information and Communications Le Nam Thang said, “Personal webpage owners are only allowed to provide their own information, and are prohibited from taking news from media agencies and using that information as if it were their own.”

The Vietnamese government has come under intense criticism from organizations like Reporters Without Borders, Human Rights Watch and other human rights groups. This is because the laws can be used for selective persecution and against certain people with whom the government has a problem. The Vietnam government has dismissed these criticisms. It says the primary intent of the decree is to protect intellectual property rights and the copyrights of press agencies by curtailing sharing.

There is a lack of clarity with which the government seems to be moving. This is not only found in the vagueness of the language of the decree itself but also in several recent examples. Until recently newspapers in Vietnam would simply quote the Chinese official lines. But with the Vietnamese standoff with China in the South China Sea over an oilrig, the state has changed it uncritical stance towards China. In fact the government has been vocal in it opposition to China claiming that China had violated Vietnamese sovereignty.

On June 4th, at the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, internet viewers in Vietnam found they could access information about the protests. However, these articles were soon taken down from most of the official media websites, even though the government denies it had a hand in this. Again the government seems to be of two minds: torn between its own desires for progress and self-reliance, and conservative notions of loyalty and state control over information.

The government is playing a balancing act. It has to balance the anti-China sentiments in the media and amongst the population while not engaging in an all out conflict with China. Recent anti-China riots in Binh Duong and Ha Tinh provinces and the evacuation of thousands of Chinese workers from Vietnam have been condemned by China. The situation is complicated for the authorities. But five years ago it was clear that the Tiananmen anniversary was not something that got any media coverage in Vietnam. Now things are changing.

The recent arrests of bloggers in Vietnam are likely to make people angrier, and may inspire new online voices of dissent. However, may of these dissident voices are still optimistic about the internet. While one blogger goes to jail, it is not in silence. Due to the internet, everyone knows what is happening and why. Additionally, as Vietnamese journalist Ngo Nhat Dang put it, “You know that if you get arrested, there is a network of people who will take care of your family, who will visit you in prison, and that makes people feel loved and less scared.” 

 

The internet wasn’t established in Vietnam until the 1990s because the government would not consent to it. Blocking and filtering content have long been a part of Vietnam’s internet regulation practices. But the rise of social media and its use as a tool for citizens to connect and organize has been unexpected. Vietnam guarantees freedom of speech, of the press, and of assembly through constitutional provisions. However, state security laws and other regulations reduce and eliminate these guarantees afforded to the citizens.

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Saadia Gardezi

Saadia Gardezi is a political scientist from Pakistan

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