A number of concerns have been raised this week regarding Vietnamese Internet censorship, chiefly by the United States: they are openly criticizing a new decree that would essentially outlaw the sharing of news stories online and would also require companies not based in Vietnam to comply with limitations on the content they host, and even hand over personal information of users who violate Vietnamese law. The France-based free-press advocacy group Reporters Without Borders have also been outspoken on the subject, as have the group Human Rights Watch.
The particular section of the decree which is causing controversy is clause 20.4, which states that “personal information webpage is a webpage created by individual on their own or via a social network. This page should be used to provide and exchange information of that individual only; it does not represent other individual or organization, and is not allowed to provide compiled information,” according to the English translation on tuoitrenews.com. Hoang Vinh Bao, head of the Broadcast and Electronic Information Department, clarified the meaning of the ban on ‘compiled information’: “individuals should not quote or share information from press agencies or websites of government agencies.”
At the press briefing for the announcement of the decree, Deputy Minister of Information and Communications, Le Nam Thang, said that the aim is to prevent the misuse of the Internet to spread false information: “Personal webpage owners are only allowed to provide their own information, and are prohibited from taking news from media agencies and using that information as if it were their own.”
Decree 72 (or Decree No. 72/2013/ND-CP dated July 15th 2013 of the Government on management, provision and use of internet services and online information) takes effect from September 1st, and says that blogs and social media should only contain personal details and must not be used to share information on current events. The US Embassy based in Hanoi has said that Washington is “deeply concerned” over provisions of the law that could prohibit the sharing of certain types of information online, as “fundamental freedoms [should] apply online just as they do offline.” The US has also suggested that “this decree will limit the development of Vietnam’s budding IT sector by hampering domestic innovation and deterring foreign investment,” something echoed by John Ure , the Executive Director of the Asia Internet Coalition.
Similarly, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) have called the decree a “gross violation of the right to inform and be informed.” They’ve also condemned the decree on principle, saying that the social media restrictions will stifle a culture of independent information that has emerged in Vietnam’s blossoming blogosphere despite strict censorship controls. In a statement on their own website, RSF have labelled the decree ” both nonsensical and extremely dangerous ” with the barely veiled goal of keeping the Communist Party in power by “turning news and information into a state monopoly.” They go as far as recommending that the international community impose economic sanctions on Vietnam, in particular on its tourism sector as that will be a strong penalty with the most impact as the government pays this industry so much attention.
RSF also points out the irony of this decree being announced merely days after Vietnam’s decision to be a candidate for membership of the UN Human Rights Council for 2014-2016, which should they become elected would mean that they must “uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights.” RSF says that Vietnam actively persecutes bloggers and netizens, and falls far short of the highest standards; in fact, RSF has created its own petition for the release of thirty-five cyber-dissidents who are currently in jail in Vietnam, a country which is second only to China in the amount of news-providers it’s detaining.
RSF draws attention to the Media Decree 2/2011/ND-CP, which Prime Minister Dung signed a few months before his re-election in 2011; that decree covered sanctions which could be imposed on journalists and the media without reference to the courts.
It is not entirely clear how Decree 72 will be policed or enforced, but Internet commentators have said that it means that sharing links to stories or even discussing articles published online in Vietnam’s state-run press is illegal.
However, Nguyen Van Phu, a ” seasoned journalist and general secretary of a business journal ” disagrees on the meaning of the decree, calling for a closer reading of the text by those who are panicking: “As far as I understand, it is to ban all of the three types of such webpage from quoting, or fully citing news stories from the official sources of news, in a bid to curb the copyright infringements that several newswires have recently been accused of.” In support of this, Hoang Vinh Bao has also calibrated his original remarks to suggest that the decree would only limit the way information was reposted, not the information itself.