Vietnamese authorities on Tuesday sentenced a young Facebook user to a five-year prison term on charges of spreading propaganda against the state for his online postings amid a deepening crackdown on freedom of expression in the one-party communist state.
Phan Cong Hai, 25, was convicted in the People’s Court of the central province of Nghe An under Article 117 of Vietnam’s 2015 Penal Code following a two-hour trial unattended by lawyers. He was the second Facebook user to be jailed in Vietnam this week and the latest in a heavy-handed campaign to censor what the 65 million users of the social platform can write or read.
Speaking to RFA’s Vietnamese Service following the trial, Phan’s father Phan Cong Binh said that he had seen his son only once following Phan’s Nov. 19 arrest after evading capture by police for almost six months.
“I was able to meet my son briefly on Dec. 24, 2019, but we couldn’t speak freely because the police were standing right next to us,” he said, adding that travel restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic have made it difficult to see Phan more frequently.
“Now, our family really doesn’t know what to do,” he said.
According to the indictment filed against him, Phan was identified by Nghe An police as the user of a Facebook account set up under the name Hung Manh which described efforts by Vietnamese youth to “offend the image” of the government and of Vietnamese Communist Party founder Ho Chi Minh.
The Facebook page came to the attention of the province’s Do Thanh High School in late 2018, and school authorities contacted police who issued a warrant for Phan’s arrest and began a nationwide search in May last year which ended when Phan returned to his native Ha Tinh province in November after taking refuge in Thailand.
Meanwhile, Vietnam’s Ninh Kieu District Court in Can Tho City on Monday handed another Facebook user an 18-month prison term for sharing a story on Facebook in January about a deadly government crackdown during a politically sensitive land dispute at the Dong Tam commune outside Hanoi.
Chung Hoang Chuong, better known by his nickname Lucky, was found guilty of “abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the State, lawful rights and interests of organizations and/or citizens” in violation of Article 331 of the Vietnamese Penal Code.
Facebook under fire
Facebook has come under fire from Vietnamese and international rights activists after the social media giant publicly admitted it has agreed to help communist authorities censor posts critical of the government.
On April 21, two Facebook employees told the Reuters news agency that the company’s servers in Vietnam were taken offline for about seven weeks earlier in the year until Facebook agreed to government demands to remove posts considered by authorities to have criticized the communist state.
In a statement condemning Facebook’s decision to comply with government demands, Amnesty International Human Rights Advisor William Nee warned that “governments around the world will see this as an open invitation to enlist Facebook in the service of state censorship.”
“The Vietnamese authorities’ ruthless suppression of freedom of expression is nothing new, but Facebook’s shift in policy makes them complicit,” he added.
In an emailed statement to RFA on April 22, Facebook spokesperson Amy Sawitta Lefevre defended her company’s action, saying that though freedom of expression is a fundamental human right, Facebook risked being blocked by authorities in Vietnam if the company refused to comply.
“We have taken this action to ensure our services remain available and usable for millions of people in Vietnam, who rely on them every day,” Lefevre said.
Vietnamese activist Tran Bang said that Facebook’s decision to bow to government demands “will block the ears, mouths, and eyes of Vietnam’s people, just as if there was no Facebook here at all.”
“Tens of millions of Facebook users have posted news from many different sources, helping people access truthful information about politics, society, and the economy," he told RFA on April 27.
"By blocking and removing stories in accordance with the authorities’ requirements, [Facebook] is complicit with the dictatorship in violating human rights and freedom of expression in Vietnam."
“This means that Facebook is no different from the communist police,” he said.
In a report this year, the media freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said that “as Vietnam’s citizens become increasingly engaged online, the authorities have been refining their digital repressive methods.”
The NGO said Vietnam’s army has created “a 10,000-strong military cyber-warfare department called ‘Force 47,’ which is tasked with defending the Party and targeting dissident bloggers.”
“Under a new cyber-crime law that took effect in 2019, foreign online platforms are required to store their Vietnamese user data on servers in Vietnam and surrender it to the authorities when required,” RSF added.
Facebook user Dinh Van Hai told RFA that Facebook had been forced to cooperate with authorities to avoid being blocked behind a firewall. “But for me, Facebook must continue to prioritize freedom of the news as its top goal,” he said.
Though smaller social media networks have recently been set up in Vietnam, these typically block content widely shared on Facebook and are not widely used, Ha Hoang Hop—a researcher at Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies—told RFA in a text message sent on April 27.
“Vietnamese social networks have not attracted as many users as Facebook, and they can’t compete,” he said.
No room for dissent
Vietnam, whose ruling Communist Party controls all media and tolerates no dissent, ranks 175th of 180 countries on the 2020 RSF’s 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.
“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.
Vietnam has also 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.