Censorship tactics overshadow Vietnam's successful COVID-19 response

Vietnam's COVID-19 response is hailed by many but its restrictive policies on free speech are often overlooked in reports. Image by Thomas Gerlach from Pixabay

This article is from The 88 Project, an independent news site covering Vietnam, and was edited and republished on Global Voices as part of a content-sharing agreement.

Vietnam has emerged as a success story in dealing with COVID-19 as the pandemic continues to ravage the planet. With official statistics showing only 300 confirmed cases and no fatalities, there is little doubt that the authorities have delivered remarkable results containing the spread of a disease that has claimed more than 400,000 lives worldwide.

This achievement should not eclipse the repressive tactics employed by the Vietnamese government to censor information related to the pandemic, however.

Countries such as Taiwan and the Republic of Korea have also shown the world their competence with low transmission and mortality rates. But they did not resort to state repression in order to achieve these results. Indeed, many of the Vietnamese authorities’ actions indicate they are utilizing the pandemic to normalize police state practices.

Public security forces controlling public opinion

According to one state-owned newspaper, by the end of March700 individuals had already been fined by the public security forces, who operate under the Ministry of Public Security, for expressions related to the coronavirus.

A closer look at these cases suggests that most of them involved individuals merely expressing concern on social networks. These concerns could easily have been addressed by the government through transparency and intensive information programs to support citizens.

For instance, in Ha Giang Province, three teachers were fined around 10 million Dong (approximately 450USD) for simply saying “The outbreak is out of control!” while posting photographs of Vietnamese patients in a quarantine area.

According to public security forces, these posts caused “unnecessary panic” among the public. They also asserted that this constituted misinformation because the photographs were from different provinces, and not Ha Giang.

A doctor in Can Tho was fined for a short status saying, “Can Tho (province) has its first case. The residents should enhance their immunity system by eating more vitamins and mineral-rich food.”

The local authorities in Can Tho duly announced their first case shortly after his post.

The majority of online expressions resulting in fines were neither dangerous to the public nor damaging to the national effort against COVID-19. But “perpetrators” were summoned, briefly detained, and interrogated by local public security forces as if they had committed serious crimes.

By free-riding on public support for a “national unifying cause” of combating COVID-19, the authorities justify the excessive and arbitrary involvement of the security apparatus in public life.

The acceptance of this practice will continue to undermine the role of public opinion in checking and balancing the already powerful Vietnamese regime, and thereby negate the right to freedom of expression in the long run.

Criticizing the state as a criminal offense

Whilst so-called panic-mongering has mostly been targeted with fines, criticism of the state during the pandemic has resulted in jail time in some instances.

Ma Phung Ngoc Phu, a resident of Can Tho, was arrested on April 11, 2020 and later sentenced to nine months in prison. Her alleged crime was to ask “There is news that one person has passed away from coronavirus in Vietnam, why do no news outlets talk about this?” in a Facebook post.

Other items included in the investigation were her “likes” and comments under several posts critical of the state's COVID-19 measures and policies.

Another victim of this arbitrary practice is Dinh Thi Thu Thuy — also a Can Tho resident. According to the accusations against her, Thuy opened multiple Facebook accounts to edit, post, and share thousands of documents defaming and slandering the leadership of the ruling Communist Party.

Public security forces also added that during the course of the “national war” against COVID-19, Thuy used social media to distort state policy and create confusion among the public. Thuy is currently in pre-trial detention and faces between five and 12 years in jail if convicted.

In Thai Nguyen Province, the People’s Procuracy officially charged Pham Van Hai under Article 288 of the Criminal Code for “illegal provision or use of information on computer networks or telecommunications networks.” On social media, Hai had contended that people infected by the coronavirus had died in Thai Nguyen province. Hai questioned the integrity of official information.

These cases of arbitrary criminalization of free speech are a violation of the legal requirements of international human rights law. The restriction of freedom of expression and related punishments are neither “provided by law,” as required by Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, nor do they pass the test of “necessity and proportionality,” as explained in General Comment No. 39 in the same covenant.

As many international rights groups have observed, the COVID-19 pandemic has offered a unique opportunity for dictators and authoritarian regimes to assert their superiority over the old “liberal democracy” model and strengthen repressive systems.

A brief overview of the situation in Vietnam shows that these tactics contribute little to a sound and successful anti-COVID campaign. More importantly, it threatens to lower even further the bar for repression of online expression that may long outlast the pandemic.

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