Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Speech and Press
The constitution and law provide for freedom of expression, including for the press; however, in practice the government did not respect these rights in practice, and several laws specifically encroach on freedom of expression. The government continued to use broad national security and antidefamation provisions to restrict these freedoms. The law defines the crimes of “sabotaging the infrastructure of socialism,” “sowing divisions between religious and nonreligious people,” and “propagandizing against the state” as serious offenses against national security. It also expressly forbids “taking advantage of democratic freedoms and rights to violate the interests of the state or lawful rights and interests of organizations or individuals.”
Freedom of Expression: The government continued to restrict speech that criticized individual government leaders, criticized the party, promoted political pluralism or multiparty democracy, or questioned policies on sensitive matters, such as human rights, religious freedom, or sovereignty disputes with China. The government also sought to impede criticism by monitoring meetings and communications of journalists and activists, including in academic institutions.
On June 12, the National Assembly adopted the Law on Cybersecurity which included vague national security provisions prohibiting “distortion of history, denial of revolutionary achievements, undermining national solidarity, taking advantage of cybersecurity protection activities to violate national security, national interests or sovereignty, or disrupt public order.” The law states any violation of its regulations would be subject to criminal prosecution.
Numerous groups and individuals criticized current and former local and national officials or members of government affiliates on social media, particularly Facebook.
On July 5, Hanoi authorities arrested blogger Le Anh Hung and charged him with “abusing democratic freedom” for online posts criticizing political leaders. Hung was a regular political writer for the Vietnamese programs of Voice of America, Radio Free Asia, and the British Broadcasting Corporation, and also contributed to the Independent Journalists Association of Vietnam’s blog.
Press and Media Freedom: The CPV, government, and party-controlled mass organizations exercised legal authority over all print, broadcast, online, and electronic media, primarily through the Ministry of Information and Communications under the overall guidance of the CPV Propaganda and Education Commission. The law authorizes the government to fine journalists and newspapers, with fines ranging from five million to 10 million Vietnamese dong (VND) ($220 to $440) for journalists who fail to cite their sources of information and for journalists and newspapers that “use documents and materials from organizations and personal letters and materials from individuals.” In July the Ministry of Information and Communications ordered a three-month suspension and 220 million VND ($10,000) fine on Tuoi Tre Online, the online version of top daily Tuoi Tre, for attributing untrue remarks to the president and “disrupting national unity.” The suspension was one of the harshest punishments in years and had a chilling effect throughout the journalism sector.
Many nongovernmental entities produced and distributed publications in a variety of forms, e.g. by subcontracting, joint-publishing, or buying permits from government or public entities that were entitled to media activities and publishing. State-run media reported that private entities produced more than 90 percent of all publications in the country, although outright private ownership or operation of any media outlet or publishing house remained prohibited. Media independent of government authority operated on a limited basis online, primarily via blogs and social media, but independent journalists faced government harassment.
On March 11, the government consolidated several circulars implementing revised Decree 72 which governs on the management, supply, and use of internet services and online information. Decree 72 continues to require media to register and store user’s personal information, facilitate the removal of information that violated laws, and allow the revocation of licenses of violators, among other provisions.
The law allows the government to punish publishers if they publish “untruthful information” in the fields of statistics; atomic energy; management of prices, charges, fees, and invoices; education; civil aviation; vocational training; hydrometeorology; cartography; and health.
The law limits satellite television access to senior officials, foreigners, luxury hotels, and the press, but persons throughout the country continued to be able to access foreign programming via home satellite equipment or cable.
The government permitted foreign-based media outlets although the law requires foreign television broadcasts to run on a 30- to 60-minute delay to enable content monitoring. Such channels ran on a 10-minute delay, however. Viewers reported obstruction of various commentaries, documentaries, and movies on human rights incidents in the country, the Vietnam War, the Cold War, the Soviet era, or events in China and Venezuela.
Major foreign media outlets reported the government delayed or refused to issue visas for reporters who previously covered sensitive political topics, particularly reporters for the overseas Vietnamese-language press. In November consular officials did not issue a visa to a BBC journalist who intended to report on the anniversary of relations between the UK and Vietnam. His visa application remained pending in December.
Government regulations authorize the information ministry to revoke the licenses of foreign publishers, and each foreign publisher must reapply annually to maintain its license.
Violence and Harassment: There continued to be a significant number of reports of security officials attacking, threatening, or arresting journalists and independent bloggers because of their coverage of sensitive stories.
Plainclothes security officials detained and beat a prominent independent journalist and author Pham Doan Trang with their motorcycle helmets after she attended an unsanctioned concert in Ho Chi Minh City. She sustained a concussion.
Foreign journalists said they continued to be required to notify authorities about travel outside Hanoi when it was to an area considered sensitive, such as the Northwest or Central Highlands, or involved a story the government otherwise might consider sensitive.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The Ministry of Information and Communications and the CPV Propaganda and Education Commission frequently intervened directly to dictate or censor a story.
Propaganda officials forced editors of major press outlets to meet regularly to discuss what topics were off-limits for reporting. More often pervasive self-censorship, including among independent journalists and bloggers, due to the threat of dismissal and possible arrest, enabled the party and government to control media content. The government continued its practice of penalizing journalists for failing to self-censor, to include revoking journalists’ press credentials.
In August a managing editor at a leading state-run daily said he was warned that he could be disciplined for what he wrote on Facebook. The newspaper said the contents he posted “undermined national unity” and provided fabricated and libelous information about organizations and individuals. He had written posts about state conglomerate Vinashin’s losses, among other issues.
National Security: The law tightly restricts media freedom and stipulates fines of 20 million to 30 million VND ($880 to $1,330) for journalists, newspapers, and online media that publish or broadcast information deemed harmful to national interests and up to 50 million dong ($2,200) for information considered as distorting history and the revolution’s achievements. In some cases these “violations” may be subject to criminal proceedings.
Citing laws protecting national security, police arrested and charged journalists to restrict criticism of government policies or officials.
The government restricted and disrupted access to the internet, censored online content, and monitored private online communications without legal authority. The limited number of licensed internet service providers (ISPs) were fully or substantially state-controlled companies. The government monitored Facebook posts and punished those who used the internet to organize protests or publish content critical of the government. On September 22, in separate trials, the People’s Court of Cai Rang district, Can Tho City, convicted Facebook users Nguyen Hong Nguyen and Truong Dinh Khang of “abusing democratic freedoms” and sentenced them to two years’ and one year’ imprisonment respectively. The government sometimes blocked websites it deemed politically or culturally inappropriate, including sites operated by overseas Vietnamese political groups in addition to the websites of Radio Free Asia, Voice of America, and the BBC Vietnamese news service. State-owned ISPs routinely blocked domestic Vietnamese-language websites that contained content criticizing the CPV or promoting political reform.
The law requires all companies and organizations operating websites providing content on “politics, economics, culture, and society” or social networks, including blogging platforms, to register with the government. The government also required such owners to submit detailed plans of their content and scope for approval. Such companies and organizations must locate at least one server in the country to facilitate requests for information from the government and store posted information for 90 days and certain metadata for up to two years.
The government forbids direct access to the internet through foreign ISPs, requires domestic ISPs to store information transmitted on the internet for at least 15 days, and requires ISPs to provide technical assistance and workspace to public security agents to allow them to monitor internet activities. The Ministry of Public Security has long required “internet agents,” including cyber cafes, to register the personal information of their customers, to store records of internet sites visited by customers, and to participate in government investigations of online activity. Internet cafes continued to install and use government-approved software to monitor customers’ online activities. The Ministry of Public Security enforced these and other requirements and monitored selectively.
On June 12, the National Assembly adopted a Law on Cybersecurity–scheduled to take effect on January 1, 2019–that requires foreign firms to store personal data locally and to open offices in the country. Members of the public protested the law and shared concerns that the law would make it easier for the state to pressure social media platforms to remove user-generated content or to hand over user information to security officials. Critics said it could undermine local businesses, which rely heavily on firms providing cross-border services online such as cloud-computing services.
The government continued to pressure firms such as Facebook and Google to eliminate “fake accounts” and content deemed “toxic,” including antistate materials. On July 9, the Ministry of Information and Communications announced that Google removed nearly 6,700 video clips, YouTube blocked six YouTube channels, and Facebook blocked nearly 1,000 links, 107 fake accounts, and 137 accounts that defamed the CPV and government.
Force 47, a special unit within the Ministry of National Defense monitored the internet for misinformation and antistate propaganda.
Authorities also suppressed online political expression by direct action against bloggers such as arrests, short-term detentions, surveillance, intimidation, and the illegal confiscation of computers and cell phones of activists and family members. The government continued to use national security and other vague provisions of the penal code against activists who peacefully expressed their political views online. Political dissidents and bloggers reported that the Ministry of Public Security routinely ordered disconnection of their home internet service. On September 17, the People’s Court of Tu Son town convicted citizen journalist Do Cong Duong of “disrupting public order” for filming a forced eviction, according to an NGO. He was sentenced to four years in prison. Duong was subsequently convicted of “abusing democratic freedoms” and sentenced on October 12 to an additional five years in prison.
Social network and blog users are required to provide their full name, national identification number, and address before creating an account. In-country website and social network operators must allow authorities to inspect local servers upon request and must have a mechanism to remove prohibited content within three hours of detection or notification by authorities.
According to the International Telecommunication Union, 49.6 percent of the population used the internet in 2017.
ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS
The government restricted academic freedom and cultural events. Foreign academic professionals temporarily working at universities in the country could discuss nonpolitical topics widely and freely in classes, but government observers regularly attended classes taught by both foreigners and nationals. The government continued to require international and domestic organizations to obtain advance approval for conferences involving international sponsorship or participation. The government allowed universities more autonomy over international exchanges and cooperation programs, but visa requirements for visiting scholars and students remained onerous.
The government continued to prohibit any public criticism of CPV and state policy, including by independent scientific and technical organizations, even when the criticism was for a purely academic audience.
The government exerted influence over art exhibits, music, and other cultural activities by requiring significant permission procedures.
Many activists reported Ministry of Public Security officials threatened university leaders if they did not expel activists from their respective universities and pressured them and their family members not to attend certain workshops, although their political activities were peaceful. Multiple activists also reported academic institutions refused to allow them or their children to graduate due to their advocacy of human rights. In March at Hanoi Noi Bai airport authorities denied exit permission to a student from Song Ngoc parish in Nghe An province who was traveling to study overseas due to his involvement in Formosa-related protests.
b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association
FREEDOM OF PEACEFUL ASSEMBLY
The government restricted freedom of peaceful assembly. Law and regulations require persons wishing to gather in a group to apply for a permit, which local authorities issued or denied without explanation. Only those arranging publicized gatherings to discuss sensitive matters appeared to require permits, however, and persons routinely gathered in informal groups without government interference. The government generally did not permit any demonstrations perceived to be political. The law permits security forces to detain individuals gathering or protesting outside of courthouses during trials.
The Ministry of Public Security and local police routinely prevented activists from peacefully assembling. There were numerous reports of police dispersing gatherings of environmental activists, anti-China activists, land rights advocates, human rights defenders, bloggers and independent journalists, women’s rights, and former political prisoners.
Social media and multiple activists reported that on June 17, authorities took some 180 people, including those who were involved in protesting the draft SAEZ and cybersecurity laws and those observing the demonstrations, to Tao Dao stadium in Ho Chi Minh City. Some activists including Phan Tieu May said they were not protesting but were taken by authorities from their homes or cafes to the stadium Authorities searched, and beat those detained. Many of those involved said they sustained injuries to the head, and some lost consciousness. One individual required long-term hospitalization for his injuries.
On August 15, Ho Chi Minh City police and plainclothes individuals beat musician Nguyen Tin and other activists at Casanova Cafe in District 3 in Ho Chi Minh City after Nguyen Tin held an unregistered concert. They tied him to a chair and beat him over the head with his guitar, according to other activists.
FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION
The constitution affords individuals the right of association, but the government restricted freedom of association severely. The country’s legal and regulatory framework establishes mechanisms for restricting freedom of NGOs to act and organize, including by restricting freedom of association. The government generally prohibited the establishment of private, independent organizations, insisting that persons work within established, party-controlled mass organizations, usually under the aegis of the VFF. The government used complex and politicized registration systems for NGOs and religious organizations to suppress unwelcome political and religious participation.
Laws and regulations governing NGOs restrict their ability to engage in policy advocacy or conduct research outside of state-sanctioned topics and prohibit organizations focused on social science and technology from operating in fields such as economic policy, public policy, political issues, and a range of other areas considered sensitive. Authorities also do not permit them to engage in the public distribution of policy advocacy positions.
The Law on Belief and Religions, which came into effect January 1, still requires religious groups to register with authorities and to inform officials of activities. Authorities had the right to approve or refuse religious activities. Some unregistered religious groups reported an increase in government interference.
Some registered organizations, civil society organizations including governance and environment-focused NGOs, reported increased scrutiny of their activities.
Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process
The constitution provides the ability to elect representatives to the National Assembly, people’s councils, and other state agencies directly. By law National Assembly elections take place once every five years by secret ballot. The constitution sets the voting age at 18 and allows candidates to run for election to the National Assembly or People’s Council at 21. Nonetheless, the ability of citizens to change their government democratically was severely limited. Constitutional and legal provisions established a monopoly of political power for the CPV; the CPV was the only party allowed to put forward candidates for office and it oversaw all elections.
Elections and Political Participation
Recent Elections: The most recent elections to select members of the National Assembly in 2016 allowed limited competition among CPV-vetted candidates but were neither free nor fair, and the government did not allow NGO monitoring. The CPV’s Fatherland Front chose and vetted all candidates through an opaque, multistage process. CPV candidates won 475 of the 496 seats. The remaining 21 were non-CPV candidates unaffiliated with any party. There were no candidates from a party other than the CPV.
According to the government, 99 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in the 2016 election, a figure activists and international observers considered improbably high. Voters may cast ballots by proxy, and officials charged local authorities with assuring that all eligible voters cast ballots by organizing group voting and verifying that all voters within their jurisdiction had voted. There were numerous reports throughout the country that election officials had stuffed ballot boxes and created the illusion of high turnout.
The law allows citizens to “self-nominate” as National Assembly candidates and submit applications for the VFF election vetting process. In the months leading up to the 2016 National Assembly elections, an informal coalition of legal reformers, academics, activists, and human rights defenders attempted to register as self-nominated, non-CPV “activist independent” candidates. In contrast to the party’s candidates, these candidates actively used Facebook and social media to advertise their policy platforms. VFF officials refused, however, to qualify any activist independent candidates, and authorities instructed official media to criticize certain activist independent candidates. According to press reports, the VFF allowed two self-nominated candidates on final ballots, but both individuals were party members.
Political Parties and Political Participation: Political opposition movements and other political parties are illegal. The constitution asserts the CPV’s role as “vanguard of the working class and of the Vietnamese nation” and the “leading force in the state and society,” a broad role not given to any other constitutional entity. Although the constitution states that “all Party organizations and members of the CPV operate within the framework of the constitution and the laws,” the CPV Politburo in fact functioned as the supreme national decision-making body, although technically it reported to the CPV Central Committee.
Participation of Women and Minorities: No laws limit participation of woman or members of minorities in the political process, and they did participate. The law set a target of 35 percent of final candidates for the National Assembly and provincial people’s councils to be women and 18 percent of final candidates for the National Assembly to be from minority groups.