During the COVID-19 lockdowns in Vietnam last year, blogger Bui Van Thuan took to Facebook to criticize a government plan to use soldiers to deliver groceries to people confined to their homes in Ho Chi Minh City.
the main points:
- Viet Nam has arrested dozens of journalists and video bloggers for social media posts
- Human rights groups worry that “digital repression” could have dire consequences
- Several countries in Asia are holding upcoming elections, prompting warnings of more restrictions online
Days later, he was arrested.
Thuan, 41, a former teacher in the northern province of Hoa Binh, was sentenced last month to eight years in prison for propaganda, and a further five years of probation.
Vietnamese authorities have accused Mr Thuan of “making, storing, disseminating or promoting information, materials and products intended to oppose” the nation.
The fees are increasingly being applied to online content as the state exercises greater control over the internet, according to human rights groups.
“The Vietnamese government has long controlled the country’s traditional media,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
“Now they are trying to control the Internet space.
“They have passed a raft of legislation to that end, and they are deploying state machines to stalk people online, coerce them into content moderation and takedown decisions on platforms, using online trolls and controlling access to the internet.”
Mr Thuan is the latest target of Vietnam’s tightening control of the internet, with authorities arresting dozens of journalists and bloggers — and even a popular noodle seller — on similar charges.
Vietnamese authorities said last month that they had tightened regulations to deal with “erroneous” content on social media platforms – such that it must be removed within 24 hours.
This Southeast Asian country has made it one of the most censored in the world for social media companies.
However, Vietnam is not alone.
Internet censorship is at an all-time high in 2022, with a record number of governments blocking political, social or religious content, according to Freedom House, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit.
In its annual report, it said increasing “digital repression” had dire consequences for basic rights, including freedom of expression, access to information and privacy, “particularly for people living under authoritarian regimes.”
“In some countries, it’s about restricting the voice of political opponents, activists and other critics of the government,” said Damar Junyarto, executive director of the Southeast Asian Freedom of Expression Network (SafeNet) digital rights group.
“But governments also want to control big tech companies – they see them as very powerful and very influential.”
‘Strict’ timeframe with governments cracking down
More than three-quarters of the world’s more than 4.5 billion internet users live in countries where online expression is penalized by authorities, according to Freedom House, which has ranked China as the worst environment for internet freedom.
Elsewhere in Asia, Indonesia enacted rules this year to make social media platforms remove content deemed illegal or “disturbing public order” within four hours if it is deemed urgent, and 24 hours if it is not.
Those who do not comply may face fines, criminal charges, or be banned from the country.
Its new criminal code has also tightened controls on so-called “false news” and insulting the president online.
Vietnamese Minister of Information and Communications Nguyen Manh Hung told Parliament that new laws were needed, as there was a risk that “false news, if handled in a slow way, will spread very widely”.
Platforms of companies that fail to meet deadlines may be banned.
Meanwhile, Singapore last month passed an online security bill that would require social media sites to block “harmful content” within hours, failing which authorities could order service providers to block access to such content for local users.
India said in October it would set up a government panel to examine user complaints about content moderation decisions by social media platforms, raising concerns about censorship.
And in Thailand, a new law that took effect this month allows authorities to force online service providers and social media platforms to remove content within 24 hours without a court order.
Digital rights groups Access Now and Article 19 said in a statement that the short timeframe for removal is “draconian”, and “puts unreasonable time pressures on platforms to respond, spurs them to err on the side of caution”.
Thai authorities said the new rules were necessary for national security and “public safety” purposes.
Growing Asian markets for social media
Populous Asian countries are large markets for social media platforms.
There are more than 400 million Facebook users in India, and about 500 million YouTube users. Indonesia has about 176 million Facebook users and about 139 million YouTube users.
According to SafeNet’s Juniarto, the crackdowns on online content — which have accelerated during the pandemic under the guise of curbing disinformation — are an attempt by Asian governments to rein in big tech companies.
“With elections approaching in several countries, we can expect to see more restrictions on the internet,” he said.
“For platforms, these are large and growing markets, so they will have to think about how they deal with these new regulations and greater government controls.”
Meta, Facebook’s parent company, and Alphabet’s YouTube did not respond to requests for comment on the new laws.
Company officials previously told Reuters they were concerned about compliance and possible government overreach of online content.
Thuan’s wife, Trin Thi Nong, said officials in Vietnam were “getting tougher” with the new rules.
She said she was told to limit her social media posts about her husband, and she and her family were seen both online and off.
“I feel very anxious about this,” said Ms. Nhung, who sells honey for a living.
Vietnamese authorities said they had found more than 100 articles posted by Mr Thuan on two Facebook accounts, of which more than two dozen were “against the state”.
Ms. Nhung said the authorities were unable to prove that the Facebook account she cited in the charges belonged to him, and maintained that her husband was innocent.
“I am very sad but I do not regret his actions,” she said, adding that it had been difficult for her and her seven-year-old daughter to be separated from Mr. Thuan.
“I will always support him because I trust him and I am proud of him.”