UPDATED at 9:29 a.m. EDT on 2020-05-07
Two posts critical of Vietnam’s Communist leaders were removed from the Facebook page of RFA’s Vietnamese Service, the social media giant Facebook informed RFA, amid tensions between free speech concerns and Hanoi’s tough information controls.
The posts shared links to two Vietnamese-language RFA reports hosted on RFA’s website, in which critics questioned the coronavirus and corruption policies of the government.
The first of the two RFA reports, posted April 14 and removed by Facebook on April 21, chronicled a plea for help by Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc to overseas Vietnamese amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which activists said was out of touch because the Vietnamese diaspora themselves are dealing with the global pandemic.
The second, posted April 27 and removed by Facebook Tuesday, dealt with a request by the Communist Party of Vietnam’s General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong, to eliminate political rivals under the guise of reining in corruption. Facebook
In both cases, Facebook alerted the administrator of the RFA Vietnamese Service Facebook page, “Due to local legal restrictions, we limited access to your post in Vietnam.” The stories can still be viewed on Facebook outside of Vietnam.
Facebook recently came under fire from human rights organizations after two of its employees told Reuters news agency in late April that the company’s local servers in Vietnam were taken offline earlier in the year until the company gave in to the demands of the government to remove posts, a period of about seven weeks when the website was often not usable by Facebook’s 65 million users in Vietnam.
After the revelation, Amnesty International released a statement condemning the company, saying it was complicit in the suppressing of freedom of expression, while Human Rights Watch said Facebook had bowed to “the government of Vietnam’s extortion.”
Facebook had no immediate comment on the censored RFA posts, but has responded to the earlier Vietnam controversies by saying it is forced to follow Vietnamese laws or be shut down by Hanoi.
“Although we do not agree with these laws, if we continued to push back on lawful government requests to block access to content in Vietnam, it is highly likely our platforms would be blocked in their entirety,” a Facebook spokesperson said last week.
“The net result of this is even greater restrictions on speech and expression - all voices in Vietnam would be silenced,” she said.
Nguyen Manh Hung, the director of information and communications in Quang Ngai province told RFA’s Vietnamese Service Tuesday that Vietnam would block or remove Facebook content deemed to be untruthful or otherwise against the state’s regulations.
“Surely, if the host server is located in Vietnam, it must operate in line with Vietnam’s [laws],”
“If Facebook’s [servers are] located in Vietnam, Vietnam must be [allowed] to manage [them],” he said.
But the policy by which the government regulates Facebook content is entirely subjective, according to La Viet Dung, an activist from Hanoi.
“Even if the [post] is 100 percent truthful, [the government] will censor, remove or block posts that go against their narrative on the justification that they were deemed untruthful,” he told RFA Tuesday.
Censorship of Facebook content is commonplace in Vietnam, Vo Van Tao, a journalist, told RFA.
“My friends have had their posts removed and Facebook even blocked one of my posts once,” he said.
Vo said that by removing RFA’s posts or blocking its content in Vietnam, Facebook is protecting its own profits instead of the right to freedom of speech.
La, meanwhile, said that by helping the Vietnamese government, Facebook was losing sight of what made it popular there to begin with. When it first appeared, Facebook was an invaluable resource that allowed people to raise their concerns publicly, without restrictions, and that is what made it successful, he said.
Since January the Vietnamese government has been actively cracking down on dissent expressed on social media. At that time, much online discussion revolved around the Dong Tam land dispute protests, which turned violent and resulted in the deaths of an activist and three police officers.
After the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic 654 people were ordered to appear at police stations across the country for questioning pertaining to Facebook posts about the coronavirus. All of those summoned were forced to delete content they had posted online, and 146 were fined, According to Amnesty International.
Reported by RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Translated by Huy Le. Written in English by Eugene Whong.