Police in Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City last week arrested two Facebook users connected to an online discussion group, charging them with “abusing democratic freedoms” under a vaguely worded law often used to lock up bloggers and other peaceful critics of the country’s one-party communist government.
The arrests followed the jailing of at least three Facebook users in April, as Vietnam’s authorities apply what media freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders called “digital repressive methods” in a heavy-handed campaign to censor what the 65 million users of the social platform can write or read.
Huynh Anh Khoa, 38, and a friend, Nguyen Dang Thuong, were taken into custody on June 13, the rights group Defend the Defenders said in a June 16 statement, adding that the two men were then taken by police to a detention center in the city’s District 8.
Huynh was seized outside his home at around 3:30 p.m. by security officers from District 8 and the city’s Binh Tan district, and was then brought back inside the house so that police could conduct a search, Huynh’s wife Pham Bao Ngoc told RFA’s Vietnamese Service on Wednesday
“They made me listen to the search warrant, and then they held me under guard while five or six of them searched the house, but they couldn’t find anything, Pham said, adding that the officers then forced them to sign three documents, which they then took away with them.
“After that, they arrested my husband and said that he would be held at the short-term detention center run by the District 8 police.”
In a statement Wednesday, Defend the Defenders said that Huynh and Nguyen had managed an online discussion group called Economic-Political Discussion, which had a following of 46,000 Facebook users but was closed down immediately after the two men’s arrests.
“So far this year, Vietnam has convicted three activists for their Facebook postings and imposed imprisonment of between nine months and five years,” Defend the Defenders said.
“In addition, the regime has imposed administrative fines up to VND 15 million ($680) on hundreds of Facebookers nationwide for their online activities after requesting them to delete their posts.”
Facebook under fire
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 responded to the controversy by saying it has been forced to follow Vietnamese laws or be shut down by Hanoi.
Vietnam, whose ruling Communist Party controls all media and tolerates no dissent, ranks 175th of 180 countries on the 2020 Reporters Without Borders (RSF) World Press Freedom Index.
“As Vietnam’s media all follow the Communist Party’s orders, the only sources of independently-reported information are bloggers and independent journalists, who are being subjected to ever-harsher harsh forms of persecution,” said RSF in a report on digital repression issued in April.
“To justify jailing them, the Party resorts increasingly to articles 79, 88 and 258 of the criminal code, under which “activities aimed at overthrowing the government,” “anti-state propaganda” and “abusing the rights to freedom and democracy to threaten the interests of the state” are punishable by long prison terms,” it said.
According to Defend the Defenders, Hanoi has arrested at least 29 activists, including 19 bloggers, for writing posts online, and is currently detaining 238 prisoners of conscience.
The country has been consistently rated “not free” in the areas of internet and press freedom by Freedom House, a U.S.-based watchdog group.
Reported by RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Translated by Huy Le. Written in English by Richard Finney.