Vietnam has been rated one of the world’s worst violators of Internet freedom, achieving a worse score than Saudi Arabia, Russia and Sudan, in an annual survey by Freedom House.
The survey said Vietnam was the country with least Internet freedom in South-East Asia, despite growing authoritarianism in a number of neighbouring countries.
Freedom House put Vietnam close to the top of its worst category – “not free” – with a negative score of 76 out of a possible 100. Thailand, judged the second worst offender in the region, had a score of 66.
“The interrogation, imprisonment, and physical abuse of bloggers and online activists continued during the coverage period, with 15 behind bars, even though the government may have been trying to keep the number of political arrests and trials to a minimum in 2015 in the context of the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations. New revisions to the penal code passed in November 2015 included several harsh provisions penalising legitimate online activity, though have yet to be implemented,” said the 2016 annual report, which noted that three more bloggers were imprisoned after the conclusion of TPP negotiations.
It said that websites critical of the government, whether based at home or abroad, were generally inaccessible and content promoting independent religious groups was also subject to severe restrictions.
“With fewer resources devoted to online content control than in China, the Vietnamese authorities have nevertheless established an effective content filtering system,” stated the report.
“Censorship is implemented by ISPs rather than at the backbone or international gateway level. Specific URLs are generally identified for censorship and placed on blacklists. Censorship targets high-profile blogs or websites with many followers, as well as content considered threatening to Communist Party rule, including political dissent, human rights and democracy, as well as websites criticizing the government’s reaction to border and sea disputes with China,” it said.
In contrast to China, with its “Great Firewall”, international social media platforms were not banned in Vietnam, and Facebook now claims more than 35 million users in the country. It has become the key forum for open discussion of public events in a media environment long monopolised by the Communist party.
However, Freedom House noted, the authorities do block access to Facebook and other platforms at times of high sensitivity. It cited a period in May when Facebook was unavailable for two days, as environmental protesters took to the streets of major cities.
It noted that any content critical of the government was closely monitored and that other steps were taken to undermine independent bloggers.
“In 2013, the government officially acknowledged using paid commentators, who have since grown in number and continue to manipulate online content,” said Freedom House.
“Internet content producers face a range of pressures that affect the quality of online information. All content needs to pass through in-house censorship before publication. In weekly meetings, guidelines handed out by a Party Committee to editors dictate areas and themes to report on or suppress, as well as the allowed depth of coverage. Editors and journalists also risk post-publication sanctions including imprisonment, fines, disciplinary warnings, and job loss.”
Freedom House concluded, however, that despite the authorities’ drive to disrupt, penalise and intimidate government critics, social media was having a profound impact.
“Although government-run media continue to dominate, new domestic online outlets and social media sites are expanding the traditional media landscape. Young educated Vietnamese are increasingly turning to blogs, social media, and other online news sources over state TV and radio,” it said.
“In May 2016, the mass deaths of fish in central coastal provinces sparked a wave of protest on Facebook, which led to street rallies in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City demanding more transparency from the government. The protest proved to be a challenge to the government on how to deal with crisis. Since mainstream media failed to cover the protests, Facebook became the platform for news, petitions, rallies, and other forms of social activism.”
It also noted the successful use of social media by activists opposed to the chopping down of trees in Hanoi in early 2015.
But for all the change, the government remains determined to keep its critics off balance and subject to arbitrary threats and abuse.
“Legislation, including internet-related decrees, the penal code, the Publishing Law, and the State Secrets Protection Ordinance, can be used to fine and imprison journalists and netizens… Police routinely flout due process, arresting bloggers and online activists without a warrant or retaining them in custody beyond the maximum period allowed by law,” said the report.
Independent bloggers confirm that the continue to work in a highly threatening environment, aware that at any time they could be subjected to harassment, physical assault or arrest.