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Amnesty International blasts new proposed social media regulations in Vietnam

An international rights group condemned the Vietnamese government’s plan to adopt new regulations to tighten control over social media platforms in the communist one-party country where leaders already have little tolerance for public criticism or dissent.

The planned amendments to existing law will require social media companies like Facebook and TikTok to remove content and services deemed illegal within 24 hours, block illegal livestreams within three hours of notice, and immediately remove content that endangers national security, Reuters reported Wednesday, citing people with knowledge of the matter.

Companies that do not comply with the requirements risk having their social media platforms banned in Vietnam, the report said, adding that it is expected that Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh will sign the new regulations in May.

The Vietnamese government is finalizing the amendments for June 2013 decree on the management, provision and use of internet services and online information for both domestic and foreign companies and individuals.

The government has been using the decree to ask companies that run popular social media platforms in Vietnam to take down “anti-government” content.

Human rights organizations expressed concern that the restrictive internet environment in Vietnam will become worse under the new regulations.

“In Vietnam, social media, including Facebook, is one of very few places for local people to express their opposition,” said Ming Yu Hah, deputy regional director of campaigns in East and Southeast Asia for London-based Amnesty International. “They face the risk of being imprisoned for years if their posts are deemed to violate the law.

“Such harsh laws are an existential threat to the freedom of expression in Vietnam,” she added.

Facebook, YouTube, TikTok and Twitter are popular foreign social media platforms in the Southeast Asian country, used by citizens to express their opinions of and dissatisfaction with the government and politics. However, many Vietnamese have been sent to prison for their expressing their opinions via social media.

In March, for instance, RFA reported that a court in Hanoi sentenced independent journalist and activist Le Van Dung to five years in prison for discussing political and socioeconomic issues in livestreamed videos on social media.

Reuters said that Vietnam’s communications and foreign ministries did not respond to requests for comment. Facebook-owner Meta Platforms Inc. and Alphabet Inc., which owns YouTube and Google, and Twitter Inc. declined to comment. TikTok, owned by China’s ByteDance Ltd., said it will continue to comply with applicable local laws and would remove content that violates platform guidelines.

For years, the Vietnamese government has demonstrated its desire to control foreign social media platforms via the decree passed in 2013 and a cybersecurity law that entered into effect in 2019.

In November 2020, Facebook announced that it had been forced to increase content censorship as requested by the Vietnamese government, after being threatened with a ban if it did not comply.

The move drew heavy criticism from rights groups that have accused social media companies of putting profits before human rights and the freedom of expression.

Amnesty’s Ming Yu Hah called on social media companies to protest the forthcoming regulation and “put human rights above profits and market access rights.”

About 60 million-70 million Vietnamese use Facebook, generating about U.S. $1 billion in annual revenue for its parent company, according to the Reuters report. YouTube has 60 million users in the country, while TikTok has 20 million.

Open letter to Biden

In a related development, more than 40 NGOs and 40 individuals signed an open online letter to U.S. President Joe Biden, calling for him to raise concern with Prime Minister Phạm Minh Chinh at a U.S.-ASEAN Summit in mid-May about the government’s antagonistic policies toward religions that do not submit to government control.

“Of particular concern is the intensifying state-directed and state-supported propaganda that promotes hate speech and incites violence against religious and lay leaders with real and deeply disturbing consequences,” the letter says.

The letter says organized mobs known as Red Flag Associations have used social media to slander Catholic priests, characterize respected monks of the Unified Buddhist Church’s Sangha as “bad forces” who “distorted the nature of religious freedom in Vietnam,” and call on the government to eliminate the Montagnard Evangelical Church of Christ in Dak Lak province.

“So far, Red Flag members have enjoyed complete impunity,” the letter says. “Their messages promoting hatred and violence have rapidly multiplied throughout Vietnam’s society.”

Certain government units also have incited hatred against ethno-religious minorities, including the Department of Public Security of Gia Lai Province, which characterizes Montagnards who have converted to Catholicism as a cult and in December 2020 declared that it had completed the heretical religion.

The United Nations Human Rights Committee singled out the Red Flag Associations as a source of incitement to hatred and violence following a review of Vietnam’s implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) in 2019.

“In light of this worrying trend, we ask that you communicate directly to Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh of Vietnam and urge his government to comply fully with both Article 18 of the ICCPR, which guarantees the right to religious freedom or belief, as well as with the requirement of Article 20 that incitement to violence be prohibited by law,” the letter says.

On Monday, a coalition of Vietnamese NGOs and individuals issued an open letter to U.N. member states, asking them not to elect Vietnam to the U.N. Human Rights Council for the 2023-2025 term.

Among the organizations that signed the letter were the Vietnam Human Rights Network, Defend the Defenders, Assembly for Democracy of Vietnam, Humanistic Socialist Party, the Great Viet Party, Vietnam Democracy Federation, the Independent Journalists Association of Vietnam, and Vietnam Democracy Radio.

They noted that Vietnam voted against a U.N. General Assembly resolution on April 7 to suspend Russia from the Human Rights Council over its invasion of Ukraine, which has killed thousands of people.

“Before looking for membership of the council, the Vietnamese government must improve its human rights record, strictly enforce international human rights conventions on human rights, and contribute to the international community to build a peaceful and prosperous world,” the open letter says.

Reported by RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Translated by Anna Vu. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.