Year after year millions of people worldwide gather in different places across the Earth to celebrate the new year, and perhaps to start their usual resolutions, wishes, and whatnot. The date is important for the many governments of the world, too, since this is usually when new laws – both positive and negative – come into effect. Vietnam is no different in this aspect and it was precisely on the first day of 2019 that a new and quite controversial law came into effect, forcing social media and other services to remove anything from the internet that the authorities deem fit. There are still many doubts surrounding the whole situation, but the truth is this is not a good start to the year for free speech.
New Year, More Censorship
The year has changed and more censorship emerges on the world. With this new law, user information can be verified and their online data disclosed to the authorities without the need for any court orders, which only gets more worrying when considering that Vietnam is a country with over 95 million inhabitants. Consequently, it’s very likely that – with this in effect – there will be more cases of journalists and bloggers being arrested for publications that clash with the communist government in Vietnam. This isn’t anything new, actually, as critics say that the online freedom in the country has been falling since the 2016 administration, when more and more activists started being sentenced to jail at a pace never seen before.
The new bill entered into effect on January 1 and had followed a previously published draft from last year in which the Ministry of Public Security said that it would aim not only at fighting cyber attacks, but also at eradicating hostile and reactionary forces that are using the internet to incite violence and dissent. Following the ten new laws, the online newspaper of the Vietnamese government published an article in which it explained that the “Law on Cyber Security protects national security and ensures social order and safety on cyberspace, and responsibilities of agencies, organizations and individuals.”
The Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc also addressed the issue in his New Year’s Day speech saying that “mass communication efforts must be stepped up to create social consensus” and that “those abusing the freedom of information and free speech, causing harm to the interests of the State and citizens would receive appropriate punishments.”
The Chinese Model and Many Question Marks
The inspiration for Vietnam’s cyber bill was clearly the Chinese online security law, a totalitarian model that is worrying human rights advocates. In an interview with CNN the head of Reporters Without Borders’ Asia-Pacific desk said that the model sounds “very Stalinist” since “any content deemed opposed to the Communist Party ideology would be suppressed and mostly the authors of this content would be regarded as enemies of the state”. He added that the decree is worse than its previous draft because of the doubts surrounding the implementation of the cyber security law.
The major difference between China and Vietnam’s cyber space is that the former is one of the most restrictive countries in the world, where Facebook, Google and many other services are blocked. Quite unlike that, in Vietnam none of these services have been ‘erased’ from the country’s web, which leaves a sense of uncertainty. Tech giants such as these two will have to open representative offices in Vietnam, something that the government already said that Google would do, though this wasn’t officially confirmed yet which only adds more question marks to the situation.
The coming years will be important to Vietnam’s cyber space. Only time will tell if the country will become a copy of other communist countries such as Russia where several apps are blocked and the online world is regulated by the government or its neighbor China – the “worst abuser of internet freedom in 2018” according to Freedom House – or even if Vietnam will slowly erect an intranet like North Korea, for example.
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