Chilling attacks on freedom of expression ahead of APEC
As previously covered on the CIVICUS Monitor, the draconian use of the penal code to crack down on human rights defenders in Vietnam remains a serious concern. In a recent statement, local civil society organisation Defend the Defenders drew attention to the alarming number of arrests of Vietnamese HRDs and bloggers in recent months. Moreover, in the run up to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit held in Vietnam, it seems authorities are deepening their assault on outspoken critics of the government. According to Human Rights Watch, more than 100 political prisoners are currently imprisoned for exercising basic civic freedoms in Vietnam. Similarly, in the twelve months preceding the APEC, at least 28 prominent activists have been detained under broad provisions within national security legislation for simply vocalising critical opinions of the government.
Detained dissidents can be held in pre-trial detention without access to legal counsel and also forbidden communication with their family members. In such an environment, many have raised concerns over torture of imprisoned dissidents. As world leaders prepare to meet in Vietnam, civil society voices from around the world have called upon Vietnamese authorities to desist from their campaign against HRDs and release all political prisoners immediately.
As previously covered on the CIVICUS Monitor, the Vietnamese government’s crackdown on bloggers and social media users has had a devastating impact on the space for dissent. With a number of bloggers given lengthy sentences for exercising their right to freedom of expression, Vietnamese authorities have effectively criminalised free speech. Often prosecuted under Article 88 of the Penal Code, which grants security forces sweeping powers to detain activists under vague accusations of "conducting propaganda against the State of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam", bloggers in Vietnam face serious threats for conducting their work. At least 25 bloggers, journalists and social media users have been arrested and detained in 2017, with many more facing harassment, intimidation and unwarranted interference in their work. In a recent statement, PEN America commented on the worsening situation by highlighting the number of prominent bloggers who have been targeted in the last year:
"Article 88 has been widely used to prosecute bloggers and others the Vietnamese government views as dissidents, and enables the court to impose draconian prison sentences. Other notable Vietnamese bloggers prosecuted under Article 88 include internationally-recognized Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, or “Mother Mushroom,” and Nguyen Huu Vinh, or “Ahn Ba Sam,” along with his colleague Nguyen Thi Minh Thuy".
Over a year after blogger Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, also known as “Mother Mushroom", was arrested on 10th October 2016, and later sentenced to 10 years in prison, "Mother Mushroom's" continued detention has come to epitomise a situation where abuse of the penal code has enabled authorities to stamp out spaces for dissent online with complete impunity. Given the severity of the situation, on 17th October 2017 a coalition of domestic and international civil society came together under the hashtag, #StopTheCrackdownVN to draw attention to the deteriorating situation. A statement by the coalition can be read below.
In the video below, Human Rights Watch highlights a number of other cases in which Vietnamese authorities have violated commitments to freedom of expression by orchestrating a systematic campaign against bloggers and social media users.
In this context of worsening conditions for freedom of expression, there are signs that even tighter controls over internet freedom could be implemented. With social media already tightly policed, recent rhetoric regarding measures to increase online surveillance could completely eradicate the scant spaces left for dissent in Vietnam.