Authorities in Vietnam and Laos have arrested several Facebook users on charges related to the coronavirus, with Hanoi punishing posts that challenge official reporting on the pandemic and Vientiane acting against a lockdown violation streamed live.
The two arrests in Vietnam come as the Communist Party government been concerned with trying to limit the spread of what it calls rumors and fake news.
One of the Vietnamese Facebook posters was accused of abusing democratic rights to infringe on the interests of others, in violation of Article 331 of the 2015 Vietnamese Penal Code.
Critics say that this article is ambiguously written and has been used often to imprison dissidents in the one-party state.
The People’s Procuracy in Can Tho province’s Ninh Kieu district detained Ma Phung Ngoc Phu, 28, because on Feb. 25, she posted a status update to Facebook under the username James Ng, that said, “We’ve just now received information about COVID-19 deaths in Vietnam. Why is state media not publishing this news?”
Police added that the James Ng account posted a total of 14 stories which it said were not factual or were fake news about the epidemic in Vietnam, which constituted abuse of the state. Ma is expected to be sentenced to the maximum penalty of seven years for the offense as outlined in Article 331.
Meanwhile, last week in central Vietnam’s Lam Dong province, police prosecuted 27-year-old Dinh Vinh Son for posting information on Facebook about a COVID-19 death in Lam Dong’s capital, Da Lat.
Dinh is being investigated for what authorities said was “illegal posting or using information on computer networks and telecommunication networks,” an offense that carries a maximum prison term of seven years.
Police said that Dinh on April 1 posted news to Facebook under the username Ho Hoang Duy, saying that Da Lat had three cases of COVID-19, with one of the three dying at 4:00 a.m. and the other two in quarantine.
Police reported more than 600 Facebookers have have been summoned for questioning over COVID-19 related posts on the social media platform. Many have been fined as high as tens of millions of dong (more than U.S. $1,000).
As of April 13, Vietnam reported 265 confirmed coronavirus cases, 145 of which have made recoveries.
Authorities in Laos charged a Facebook user for live-streaming an April 4 event that violated a stay-at-home order issued by the communist country’s prime minister to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
The accused is a resident of Phoxay village in Savannakhet province’s Atsaphone district.
District Governor Khampheng Phetthoumphone told local media April 6 that local police learned of the event that day.
“To the matter of the individual who published a live video on social media, he was handed over to the district police who will summon and charge him according to the law,” the governor said.
He added that the event’s organizers were to be re-educated and the Facebook user will be charged with violating the stay-at-home order.
An official of the Savannakhet Lao Front for Construction, a mass organization overseeing religious activities, told RFA’s Lao Service that the charge was unimportant because the accused person was not criticizing the government.
“It’s not a big deal. The authorities did not restrict anything,” said the official, who requested anonymity.
“If posting news or making live videos is about the truth, it should not be prohibited,” the official said.
The official explained that live-streaming itself on Facebook was not illegal, but added that it was up to the local authorities in Atsaphone to deal with this particular incident.
The official explained that in general doing live video on Facebook is not illegal, if it’s not against the Party and government. In the case of the incident in Atsaphone District, it’s up to the local authorities to deal with it.
But several Lao citizens told RFA they disagreed with the charge.
“It’s not appropriate. You have to look for the people responsible for the gathering, not just punishing the person who recorded and posted it online,” a resident of Savannakhet who requested anonymity told RFA.
“Before a festival like that, the organizers need to get permission. So they have to find the person who granted permission. That’s who should be held responsible,” the resident said.
“It would be better if they just gave the video taker a warning. Nobody did anything wrong,” the resident added.
Another Savannakhet resident who also requested anonymity agreed, saying, “It’s not wrong. The [accused] has a right to do that. There’s nothing wrong with taking video of something that is not against the state.”
The second resident pointed out that laws on online media exist, and many people frequently create live videos for fun, adding that in this case the intent was to show the festivities, not to attack the party or the government.
As of Monday, Laos has reported a mere 19 confirmed coronavirus cases.
In recent weeks, RFA’s Khmer Service reported that authorities in neighboring Cambodia have also detained people for commenting on Facebook about COVID-19.
These included Sovann Rithy, a reporter had accurately posted on Facebook a comment by Hun Sen telling motorbike-taxi drivers who face bankruptcy because of the coronavirus outbreak to “sell your motorbikes for spending money … [because] the government does not have the ability to help.”
Additionally, RFA reported that Hun Sen had made a personal threat to Am Sam Ath of the LICADHO NGO, after the organization provided updates on the government’s recent crackdown and arrests of at least 24 people who posted comments on Facebook related to COVID-19.
As of Monday, Cambodia has confirmed 122 cases of the coronavirus.
Reported by RFA’s Vietnamese and Lao Services. Translated by Huy Le and Max Avary. Written in English by Eugene Whong.