Congressional Briefing on Internet Freedom in Vietnam

Duy Hoang

October 14, 2009

Statement by Duy Hoang
Spokesperson, Viet Tan

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Thank you Congresswomen Sanchez and Lofgren for holding this briefing today. Thank you also for introducing H.Res. 672 calling for internet freedom in Vietnam. We urge the House of Representatives to pass this important resolution.

The internet has the potential to transform Vietnam. In some ways, it already has.

While the Vietnamese Communist Party maintains a monopoly on newspapers, TV and radio, millions of Vietnamese have gone online to access independent sources of information. An increasing number of Vietnamese are operating their own blogs, documenting social events through YouTube, and debating issues in chat rooms like Paltalk. Like everywhere else, people in Vietnam are no longer just consumers of news on the web, they are also generating their own content; they are citizen journalists.

The big stories that have rocked Vietnam in the last couple of years—corruption by high level officials, prayer vigils for the return of confiscated Catholic Church properties, and student protests against China’s annexation of Vietnamese islands—have been covered extensively by bloggers despite harassment from authorities and silence in the official media.

In addition to being a source of information, the internet is also a potent organizing tool. While Hanoi continues to severely restrict freedom of association, de facto organizations in the form of social networks, discussion forums and issue-specific clubs are active online. And when the members of these entities “meet” through the web, they do not seek government permission to assemble.

Fearing that the internet has increased the political space in Vietnam, the Hanoi government instituted new measures last year to curtail internet freedom:

• In October 2008, authorities created the Administration Agency for Radio, Television and Electronics Information, operating under the Ministry of Information and Communications. This Orwellian entity is the watchdog to regulate the internet.

• In December 2008, the Ministry of Information and Communications issued Circular 07 instructing the management of private blogs. Of particular concern, Circular 07 requires technology providers to collaborate with the authorities. Even foreign internet providers such as Yahoo, Google, and Microsoft are reportedly obliged to assist police in monitoring the internet.

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While the above measures to restrict the internet are relatively new, Hanoi has long curtailed basic rights, especially freedom of expression. This has been enabled by provisions in the penal code—such as the notorious Article 88 which punishes so-called “propaganda against the socialist state” by up to 12 years in prison.

Given what we see today in Vietnam, how can human rights advocates—especially in the US Congress—protect and advance internet freedom?

I would like to offer three broad recommendations:

  1. Promote legal reform in Vietnam.
  2. Urge technology companies not to give in to internet censorship.
  3. Support imprisoned bloggers and cyber activists.

Promoting legal reform

Legal provisions used to ban dissent clearly violate international covenants on human rights to which the Socialist Republic of Vietnam is a signatory. These statutes contradict the country’s constitution and, more importantly, the interests of the Vietnamese people. International rights groups and the US State Department through the annual human rights dialogue have called on Hanoi to repeal anachronistic laws such as Article 88.

Hanoi’s policy on internet censorship, however, is not just a human rights problem. It affects Vietnam’s socio-economic development and the government’s stated goal of developing a knowledge-based economy. Obviously, no country can achieve an information economy when the exchange of information is restricted, let alone criminalized. Efforts to overhaul Vietnam’s higher education system will have limited success in a climate where free speech and thought are repressed.

That is why the Congress and Administration, through public diplomacy and aid programs, should insist on legal reform in Vietnam, beginning with the repeal of Circular 07 and Article 88.

Role of internet providers

Hanoi would like to emulate China’s Great Firewall, but in at least one crucial respect it cannot: whereas companies providing internet services in China are based in-country and subject to government coercion, the most popular technology platforms in Vietnam—Yahoo, Google and Microsoft—mostly locate their servers offshore. This means these companies need not handover private user data or censor blog posts at the behest of Vietnamese police.

Given Hanoi’s current internet policy, these big technology companies may still face requests to collaborate with the internet police. So let us remind the firms of their corporate social responsibility to protect freedom of expression and privacy, especially since Yahoo’s regrettable actions in China led to the arrest of several dissidents there.

Mindful of their public image, companies like Yahoo, Google and Microsoft can be discouraged from “being evil” through public scrutiny from Congress, the media and consumers.

Defending imprisoned bloggers and cyber-activists

Last week, kangaroo courts in Vietnam sentenced nine democracy activists to prison. A key charge against these men was that they posted articles online. As a result, they will now sit in jail for the next several years.

While Hanoi would like for everyone to forget about these brave activists—Poet Tran Duc Thach, high school teacher Vu Hung, engineer Pham Van Troi, writer Nguyen Xuan Nghia, university student Ngo Quynh, former communist party member Nguyen Manh Son, essayist Nguyen Van Tinh, land rights activist Nguyen Van Tuc, and electrician Nguyen Kim Nhan—we simply will not.

Public statements and visits to Vietnam by Members of Congress demanding the release of imprisoned bloggers and cyber-activists are important. These actions provide comfort to prisoners’ families and tell the Hanoi communist leadership that there is a price to pay for crushing peaceful expression.

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Let me conclude my testimony by quoting Congresswoman Sanchez: “The Internet is an amazing tool for sharing information, promoting social and economic development, and bringing people together from across the world.” Indeed, people in Vietnam deserve their internet freedom.

Thank you again for your support.


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