[Vietnam] With new cyber law in place, takedown of online report on plastic pollution a portent of more online crackdowns?

An online report on marine pollution in the coasts of Vietnam, taken down two days ago, remains inaccessible, and raises the specter of intensified crackdown on online media less than two months since a new cyber security law came into force. 

VnExpress International, an English-language online news site focusing on Vietnam, published the report produced by Vietnamese photographer Nguyen Viet Hung, who has been documenting the country’s maritime environment since August 2018

Hung’s article, “A photographer exposes Vietnam’s ugly underbelly – marine pollution,” was last quoted on Twitter at 12:47 p.m. (local time) just before the takedown. Less than two hours later, it was reported to be down by Twitter users, who were greeted by this message when they tried to access it: “Page Not Found. We’re unable to locate the page you requested.” 

Based on a report by The Vietnamese, an independent online magazine, Twitter users who tried to access the report realized that it was no longer accessible on the site. 

“Ugh…I really hope it wasn’t censored,” said one Twitter user.

Vietnam is among the top five countries polluting the world’s ocean, according to a Science Magazine report in 2015. 

Vietnam’s new cyber security law, which took effect on 1 January 2019, has drawn flak for its sweeping power to monitor online activity. It requires online platforms such as Google and Facebook to set up local offices and store their data locally. 

Human rights and media groups see the law as the one-party state’s effort to tighten the reins on free expression in Vietnam. 

“Whether Hung’s environmental report was taken down upon orders of state authorities or due to self-censorship, there’s no belaboring the dismal state of press freedom and free speech in Vietnam,” said Tess Bacalla, executive director of the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA). 

What happened to Hung’s piece was not an isolated case for VnExpress.net

In 2004, Prime Minister Pham Van Khai called out the news website for its online report on the government’s purchase of 78 Mercedes vehicles for the Asia-Europe Meeting. The editor-in-chief and journalists behind the story were reportedly put under disciplinary action. 

Tran Vi, editor in chief of The Vietnamese, an independent news website, said “it is the unspoken rule among all reporters and editors that the Vietnamese Communist Party’s Central Propaganda Committee is the real editor in chief of all state-owned media and newspapers” in the country. 

She recounted an incident in December last year when the head of the Committee appeared and remarked at a congress held explicitly by and for the press. “He told the journalists present to overcome having ‘vague political thoughts’ as news reporters, especially when it comes to posting on social media.” 

“In practice, the Committee regularly requests newspapers to take down articles that it deems negatively affect the VCP,” she said. 

It appears that such requests have the force of law. 

As though echoing the fate that befall Hung’s environmental report, an online article that drew much criticism from netizens was similarly taken off the online sites where they had been posted, Vi said. 

The article, which was carried by most of the major newspapers in Vietnam, reported that the Politburo had approved more than 50 billion VND (~USD 2.15 million) for the construction of two metro lines in Ho Chi Minh City. 

“Immediately, prominent bloggers and dissidents on social media, like lawyers Le Cong Dinh and Tran Vu Hai, questioned the legality of that decision.”

“(Even) when netizens showed support for the lawyers’ point of view, by the end of the day, all of the published articles were taken down.”

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