Geneva, 17 June.
PEN International, English PEN, Article 19 and Access have made a joint submission on the situation of freedom of expression in Viet Nam to the United Nations Universal Periodic Review (UPR). The human rights record of Viet Nam will come under scrutiny by the UPR mechanism of the UN Human Rights Council for the second time in January 2014.
The joint report found that rather than improving, the human rights situation in Viet Nam has continued to deteriorate since 2009. In particular, we are concerned about the state of freedom of expression, and the continued crackdown on writers, journalists, human rights defenders and activists. The submission focuses on attacks against freedom of expression including internet surveillance, cyber-attacks on civil society, and the persecution of journalists, bloggers and writers.
Vietnam has mostly failed to comply with the recommendations accepted during its first UPR and the Government has continued to face international criticism for its attacks on the right to freedom of expression. For example, the US Congress, in October 2009, called on the Vietnamese government to respect Internet freedom and release imprisoned bloggers. More recently, on 18 April 2013, the European Parliament adopted an Urgent Resolution on Viet Nam, a large part of which was devoted to freedom of expression issues.
State controlled media and lack of press freedom
There is complete government control over print and broadcast journalism in Viet Nam. The government owns all publications, and the Central Propaganda Department sets weekly news agendas. Editors who publish unapproved content are reprimanded. Vietnamese journalists claim that those who cross the Propaganda Department are ‘blacklisted’. Many topics are completely forbidden, including high-level corruption, anti-China sentiments or protests, and human rights issues.
Internet surveillance and cyber-attacks on civil society
The Vietnamese government monitors internet traffic on both private and government-run ISPs, and requires all internet cafés to record information about customers’ identification and online activities. A popular Yahoo! blogging service was recently shut down and only allowed to re-open once it located its servers inside Viet Nam, allowing the government greater filtering control and easier access to user information.
Alongside the open surveillance and filtering, the government employs covert tactics to track online activity. Denial-of-service attacks make a website inaccessible for the general populace, and have been utilized by pro-government actors to silence independent media organizations and human rights activists in Viet Nam. Facebook became inaccessible to many in late 2010, according to widespread reports, but the government denied involvement. In 2009, it was discovered that one of the most widely used pieces of software for Vietnamese computer users, VPSKeys (a utility that allows Vietnamese characters to be entered on a standard keyboard), had been infected with malware which spied on the user and allowed remote groups to hijack their internet connection to attack external websites. Again the Vietnamese authorities denied any involvement, but it is notable that the websites targeted were those critical of bauxite mining in Viet Nam, a particularly sensitive topic for the Vietnamese government.
Vietnamese civil society organizations and actors – including independent media, human rights defenders, and citizen activists – come under a variety of attacks online by pro-government actors. The tactics used have changed over time; initially focusing on targeting the email accounts of activists for compromise and takeover, they have evolved into more sophisticated attacks such as broad phishing, malware, and fake domain attacks. The implications of these attacks extend beyond the immediate actors they target, and more broadly hinder access to information, freedom of association, and freedom of expression for people in Viet Nam.
Persecution of writers, journalists, bloggers and human rights defenders
There have been at least 40 cases of writers, journalists and bloggers serving sentences ranging from 2-16 years for their peaceful activism and critical writings. The number of writers arbitrarily detained in Viet Nam has more than tripled since 2009.
One such writer is Ta Phong Tan, pictured above, who began blogging while she was still a member of the police force, exposing police abuses, corruption, and abuse of power. She was sentenced to ten years in prison in October 2012 for ‘conducting propaganda against the state’ for her online writings for the banned website Free Journalist Club (Cau Lac Bo Nha Bao Tu Do) which she co-founded, and her own blog. Her articles have been published in many mainstream media outlets in Viet Nam, including Tuoi Tre (Youth), Nguoi Lao Dong (Labourer), Viet Nam net, and the Vietnamese Service of the BBC. After her arrest in September 2011 her trial was repeatedly postponed, and when it took place it did not comply with international standards of fairness. On 30 July 2012 her mother died after self-immolating outside government buildings in protest at her daughter’s detention, after months of harassment from public security officials.
Restrictive legislation on freedom of expression
There have been several laws passed which target online freedom of expression, giving the government greater powers to control Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and penalize writers and “non-accredited” journalists.
Viet Nam is in the process of amending its constitution. Despite assurances at the last UPR that the government would aim to comply with international human rights laws, the constitution only nominally protects human rights, allowing the government to limit or remove rights for vague “national security” reasons.
The Submission makes the following recommendations:
1. Ratification of international instruments:
• Ratify the Optional Protocol to the ICCPR to give the Human Rights Committee the competence to receive individual complaints regarding Viet Nam’s compliance with its obligations under the ICCPR.
2. State controlled media and lack of press freedom:
• Relinquish state control over the entire country’s media, and create an enabling environment for the development of independent and pluralistic media.
• Refrain from dictating the media agenda through the CPD.
• Refrain from persecuting journalists who do not comply with the CPD’s requirements.
3. Restrictive legislation on freedom of expression:
• Remove or clarify ambiguous and illegitimate qualifications on human rights protections in the constitution and in national laws.
• Reform laws that restrict the right to freedom of expression to ensure they are: provided by law, pursue a legitimate aim, and are necessary in a democratic society.
• Ensure that all new legislation or amendments to existing laws meet international standards on freedom of expression.
• Amend the proposed Constitution in order to fully protect human rights, and separate and comprehensive protections should be given to the rights to: i) freedom of opinion; ii) freedom of expression; iii) access to information; iv) freedom of the press, and v) freedom of peaceful assembly and of association.
• Adopt a comprehensible law on access to information that fully complies with international standards in this area.
4. Persecution of writers, journalists, bloggers and human rights defenders:
• Refrain from harassing, threatening, criminalising or arresting writers, journalists, bloggers, political activists and other human rights defenders for reasons connected to their peaceful activities, including the legitimate exercise of their freedom of expression rights.
• Release writers, journalists, bloggers, political activists and other human rights defenders currently in detention for reasons connected to their peaceful activities, including the legitimate expression of their views.
5. Internet surveillance and cyber attacks on civil society:
• Repeal laws which place heavy restrictions on online anonymity, and which require ISPs to constrain freedom of expression.
• End the arbitrary surveillance of Internet users in Viet Nam.
• Ensure any communications surveillance is carried out only in line with international human rights obligations, respecting the requirements of necessity and proportionality.
• Respect the right of Internet users to access blogs and communications platforms based outside of Viet Nam.
• Refrain from interfering with and attacking the devices, accounts, and services used to facilitate the online activities and communications of Internet users in Viet Nam.
6. Extend a standing invitation to all of the UN Special Rapporteurs, and cooperate with them regarding communications and requests for country visits, including the mandates for:
• Freedom of opinion and expression
• Freedom of peaceful assembly and of association
• Human rights defenders
PEN International will be conducting advocacy around freedom of expression issues in Viet Nam in the run up to the 18th session of the UPR in January 2014. For further information on PEN International’s policy and advocacy work at the United Nations please contact Sarah Clarke, International Policy and Advocacy Officer, at firstname.lastname@example.org.