Future Tense

Vietnam’s Government Is Using COVID-19 to Crack Down on Freedom of Expression

A woman holding a cellphone leans on a ledge with a long hallway behind her.
Musician and activist Mai Khoi, a dissident musician known as Vietnam’s Lady Gaga, in San Francisco on Oct. 19, 2018. Corentin Soibinet/Getty Images

In the wake of COVID-19’s spread across the world, countries are dealing with the rise of both intentional fake news and well-meaning misinformation about the virus. Some hard-hit countries have enacted new laws related to the spread of misinformation, while others are reckoning with constitutional limits on free speech. For instance, a recent court challenge forced the French government to take down its own website debunking COVID-19 related fake news. Even more countries facing major outbreaks are using existing laws to crack down on alleged spreaders of misinformation like in India and Morocco.

Though many Asian nations are dealing with very serious outbreaks, Vietnam appears to be one of the most successful in halting the spread of the infection. As of May 8, it has reported just 288 cases, 241 recoveries, and a remarkable zero deaths. While there have been suspicions that China may be underreporting its infected and death rates, there have not been any major accusations of Vietnam doing the same. In fact, many media outlets have praised the Vietnamese government’s aggressive measures, which have included early restrictions on travel, quarantining affected villages, providing free masks, and even writing viral songs. However, the efforts to fight COVID-19 misinformation and fake news online, including with a law enacted in April, reveal the darker side to public awareness efforts in Vietnam—one that stems from a long history of censorship and authoritarianism.

In addition to proactive physical measures, Vietnam has been active in setting up online public health resources like websites and a mobile app in order to more efficiently disseminate accurate information as well as speed up testing. At the same time, the government has taken a hard-line stance on the spread of rumors and misinformation, instituting a hefty fine for the posting of fake news on social media. The government’s censorship apparatus has allowed it to quickly stem the spread of rumors and act against people profiteering off supplies.

Vietnam has long censored its press and the ability of laypeople to express opinions contrary to the official state or party line. It’s a one-party state, and any criticism of government officials or policy positions is strictly curtailed. Official state media outlets are heavily edited, and private social media platforms are routinely censored. There’s also a history of arresting dissidents for their posts on Facebook, such as prominent blogger Ho Van Hai’s 2016 arrest for “propaganda against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.” Many topics of discussion and ideas are forbidden, though some—such as anti-Chinese sentiment—are too widely popular for the government to censor entirely, as Vietnam and China officially remain allies, even in light of increased political and military tensions.

One example of the Vietnamese government’s attempts to censor online discussion over controversial events happened earlier this year. In January, an ongoing land dispute between the government and Dong Tam, a small village near the capital of Hanoi, erupted into a deadly incident that allegedly resulted in the deaths of the elderly village leader and several police officers. Anti-government Facebook posts, including a statement from the village leader’s widow, were censored, and several dissidents were arrested over posts they had made about the incident. The Vietnamese government’s social media brigade mass-reported Facebook profiles of dissidents to take them down and flooded the platform with pro-government sentiments.

The Vietnamese government censorship apparatus works hand in hand with private companies, as we found out in April. Reuters reported that earlier this year, state-owned telecom companies throttled traffic to Facebook, rendering access to the platform impossible at times, until Facebook agreed to take down content the Vietnamese government deems anti-state. (In a statement emailed to Reuters, Facebook acknowledged the government’s request and said it complied in order to “to ensure our services remain available and usable for millions of people in Vietnam, who rely on them every day.”) As one of the fastest-growing social media networks in the country, Facebook is well-positioned to assist with public health awareness efforts. But the Vietnamese government has been accused of continually throttling access, blocking the website entirely, and even having government agents spy on dissidents.

In April, Amnesty International reported that between January and March, 654 people were detained by police to attend “working sessions” related to their virus-related Facebook posts. In these sessions, posters are forced to admit that their posts contained false information about COVID-19 in Vietnam, delete them, and pledge not to reoffend. The content of the posts included claims that there have been deaths in the country and suggest corruption in the government response efforts. Some “smear the leadership of the Party and the state,” according to state media.

Central to this debate is Viet Tan, a political opposition group that is illegal inside Vietnam. Viet Tan has questioned the efficacy of the government’s COVID-19 measures and the truthfulness of its COVID-19 reporting, and it has amplified suggestions that China is ultimately responsible for the spread of the pandemic. Viet Tan is a frequent critic of the regime, and long before the Amnesty International report, it spoke out against Facebook’s alleged complicity in taking down dissident voices. The Vietnamese government considers Viet Tan a terrorist organization, stemming from its origins as a violent revolutionary organization based in the United States.

Although it is suppressed within the country, Viet Tan continues to serve as an outlet and mouthpiece for dissident voices operating both within and outside of Vietnam, many of whom rely on Facebook and other social media platforms to get their messages out. Facebook’s latest act of cooperation with the government comes at a key moment in the country: the 2021 elections. In January, the Communist Party of Vietnam will hold its the 13th National Congress, and the National Assembly will hold its elections in May. Vietnam holds direct elections for its National Assembly, but the top positions in government are elected by the legislative body, not citizens. Those top four leadership positions, “the four pillars,” are the party secretary general, the state president, the prime minister, and the chairperson of the national assembly. Vietnam is no stranger to restricting free expression ahead of elections, and so this clampdown of COVID-19 “fake news” appears to be perfectly timed.

Key to these suppression is the April 15 decree outlawing fake news. In addition to banning COVID-19 related misinformation, it restricts all social media posts that share banned books and publications, documents deemed to be state secrets, or even maps and charts failing to show the Vietnamese claims in the South China Sea. The crackdown on COVID-19 fake news and Vietnam’s use of nationalism to unite the country against the virus have been the primary focus of much of the media attention surrounding this decree. But the broad terms by which “fake news” is being defined “provides yet another potent weapon in the Vietnamese authorities’ arsenal of online repression,” Tanya O’Carroll, director of tech at Amnesty International, told Reuters.

With a public health crisis as an excuse, the Vietnamese government is maintaining its suppression of dissident speech. And although this digital silencing is becoming more common, Vietnam continues to clamp down on free expression in all other forms, such as its harassment of Mai Khoi, dubbed the “Lady Gaga of Vietnam.” She is currently renting a secret apartment from a friend after getting evicted for holding up a banner that read “PeacePiss on you Trump” during the U.S. president’s visit to Vietnam. (This was not the first time she has been evicted for voicing protests against political figures.) Vietnam’s long history of repression and censorship should cause one to suspect that Vietnam is not just fighting COVID-19, but also free expression.

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