The constitution and law provides for freedom of expression, including for the press; however, in practice the government did not respect these right and several laws specifically encroach on freedom of expression. The government continued to use broad national security and antidefamation provisions to restrict these freedoms. The law defines the crimes of “sabotaging the infrastructure of socialism,” “sowing divisions between religious and nonreligious people,” and “propagandizing against the state” as serious offenses against national security. It also expressly forbids “taking advantage of democratic freedoms and rights to violate the interests of the state and social organizations.”
Freedom of Expression: The government continued to restrict speech that criticized individual government leaders, criticized the party, promoted political pluralism or multiparty democracy, or questioned policies on sensitive matters, such as human rights, religious freedom, or sovereignty disputes with China. The government also sought to impede criticism by monitoring meetings and communications of journalists and activists, including in academic institutions.
On March 17, police arrested blogger Bui Hieu Vo for “conducting propaganda against the state” by criticizing the government on his Facebook page. He remained in pretrial detention at year’s end.
Press and Media Freedom: The CPV, government, and party-controlled mass organizations exercised legal authority over all print, broadcast, online, and electronic media, primarily through the Ministry of Information and Communications under the overall guidance of the CPV Propaganda and Education Commission. Private ownership or operation of any media outlet remained prohibited. Media independent of government authority operated on a limited basis online, primarily via blogs and social media, but independent journalists faced government harassment.
On January 1, a new media law came into effect that maintains prohibitions from the 1999 media law on “providing information that is untruthful, distorted, slanderous, or harmful to the reputation of an organization or agency, or the honor and dignity of an individual.”
The law allows for the government to punish publishers if they publish “untruthful information” in the fields of statistics; atomic energy; management of prices, charges, fees, and invoices; education; civil aviation; vocational training; hydrometeorology; cartography; and health.
The law limits satellite television access to senior officials, foreigners, luxury hotels, and the press, but persons throughout the country continued to be able to access foreign programming via home satellite equipment or cable.
The government permitted foreign-based media outlets although the law requires foreign television broadcasts to run on a 30- to 60-minute delay to enable content monitoring. In practice such channels ran on a 10-minute delay. Viewers reported obstruction of various commentaries, documentaries, and movies on human rights incidents in the country, the Vietnam War, the Cold War, the Soviet era, or events in China.
Major foreign media outlets reported the government refused to issue visas for reporters who previously covered sensitive political topics, particularly reporters for the overseas Vietnamese-language press. Foreign reporters also reported authorities turned them away at airports, even if they had valid entry visas.
Government regulations authorize the information ministry to revoke licenses of foreign publishers, and each foreign publisher must reapply annually to maintain its license.
Violence and Harassment: There continued to be a significant number of reports of security officials attacking, threatening, or arresting journalists and independent bloggers because of their coverage of sensitive stories.
On November 27, a court sentenced Nguyen Van Hoa, a citizen journalist who reported for Radio Free Asia’s Vietnamese service, to seven years imprisonment for “conducting antistate propaganda” after he was held incommunicado for more than a week following his January 11 arrest. Hoa covered protests against Formosa (see section 1.d.).
Foreign journalists noted they continued to be required to notify authorities about travel outside Hanoi when it was to an area considered sensitive, such as the Northwest or Central Highlands, or involved a story the government otherwise might consider sensitive.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The Ministry of Information and Communications and the CPV Propaganda and Education Commission frequently intervened directly to dictate or censor a story.
On October 17, Nha Bao & Cong Luan, an online newspaper, reportedly removed an article implicating the vice minister of Ministry of Industry and Trade a few hours after it appeared online. Social media reported the author of the article resigned following the incident.
Propaganda officials forced editors of major press outlets to meet regularly to discuss what topics were off-limits for reporting. More often, pervasive self-censorship, including among independent journalists and bloggers, due to the threat of dismissal and possible arrest enabled the party and government to control media content. The government continued its practice of penalizing journalists for failing to self-censor, to include revoking journalists’ press credentials.
On August 1, the government-affiliated Vietnam Journalists Association announced the launch of software to monitor local news outlets’ posting, editing, and removal of articles. The Ministry of Information and Communications also approved a software project to identify, block, collect, and process “misleading” information on the internet.
State and international media reported the government banned journalist Duong Hang Nga from going abroad for three months following articles she published criticizing a construction project in Danang.
National Security: The law tightly restricts press freedom and stipulates fines of 20 million to 30 million Vietnamese dong (VND) ($880 to $1,330) for journalists, newspapers, and online media that publish or broadcast information deemed harmful to national interests and up to 50 million dong ($2,200) for information considered distorting history and the revolution’s achievements--if these violations are not serious enough for criminal proceedings.
The law authorizes the government to fine journalists and newspapers, with fines ranging from five million to 10 million VND ($220 to $440) for journalists who fail to cite their sources of information and for journalists and newspapers that “use documents and materials from organizations and personal letters and materials from individuals.”
Citing laws protecting national security, police arrested and charged journalists to restrict criticism of government policies or officials.
The government arrested more than 16 individuals under national security antipropaganda charges. Independent journalist and reported member of the Brotherhood for Democracy, Truong Minh Duc, was arrested during the year for “attempting to overthrow the people’s administration.”
The government restricted and disrupted access to the internet, censored online content, and monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority. It allowed access to the internet through a limited number of internet service providers (ISPs), all of which were fully or substantially state-controlled companies. The government monitored Facebook posts and punished activists who used the internet to organize protests or publish content critical of the government. The government sometimes blocked websites it deemed politically or culturally inappropriate, including sites operated by overseas Vietnamese political groups in addition to the websites of Radio Free Asia, Voice of America, and the BBC Vietnamese news service. State-owned ISPs routinely blocked domestic Vietnamese-language websites that contained content criticizing the CPV or promoting political reform.
The law requires all companies and organizations operating websites providing content on “politics, economics, culture, and society” or social networks, including blogging platforms, to register with the government. Under the decree, such companies and organizations must locate at least one server in the country to facilitate requests for information from the government and store posted information for 90 days and certain metadata for up to two years.
The government forbids direct access to the internet through foreign ISPs, requires domestic ISPs to store information transmitted on the internet for at least 15 days, and requires ISPs to provide technical assistance and workspace to public security agents to allow them to monitor internet activities. The Ministry of Public Security has long required “internet agents,” including cyber cafes, to register the personal information of their customers, to store records of internet sites visited by customers, and to participate in government investigations of online activity. Internet cafes continued to install and use government-approved software to monitor customers’ online activities. The Ministry of Public Security enforced these and other requirements and monitored selectively.
The Ministry of Information and Communications required all internet companies, social networking sites, and websites that provided information or commentary about “politics, economics, culture, and society” based in the country to register and obtain an operating license. The ministry also required such owners to submit detailed plans of their content and scope for approval.
In March the Ministry of Information and Communication instructed both local and foreign companies to stop advertising on YouTube until it deletes clips that they believe “defame,” “oppose,” and “tell lies” about the state. In addition, the government routinely asked both Facebook and Google to help it eliminate fake accounts and other “toxic” content, such as antigovernment material. In March the government stated it had identified up to 8,000 YouTube videos that should be taken down. On December 22, the ministry claimed that Facebook had removed 159 accounts and that Google had removed 4,500 videos that the government found “defamed” the state or political leaders.
On December 26, Ministry of National Defense senior lieutenant general Nguyen Trong Nghia announced the establishment of “Force 47” to combat misinformation and antistate propaganda online.
Authorities continued to suppress online political expression through politically motivated arrests and convictions of bloggers as well as through short-term detentions, surveillance, intimidation, and illegal confiscations of computers and cell phones of activists and family members. The government continued to use national security and other vague provisions of the penal code against activists who peacefully expressed their political views online. Political dissidents and bloggers reported that the Ministry of Public Security routinely ordered disconnection of their home internet service.
Authorities arrested and convicted Thai Nguyen University student Phan Kim Khanh for “conducting antistate propaganda” for blog posts deemed critical of the government. Courts sentenced Khanh to six years in prison and four years’ probation.
Social network and blog users are required to provide their full name, national identification number, and address before creating an account. In-country website and social network operators must allow authorities to inspect local servers upon request and must have a mechanism to remove prohibited content within three hours of detection or notification by authorities.
The government provided implementing guidance that expanded the government’s authorities under the telecommunications laws, including limiting content that could be harmful to national security or that opposes the government; empowering authorities to compel the removal of toxic information from foreign entities’ websites that have Vietnamese users or businesses that base their servers in Vietnam; and giving the government the authority to block such content should providers fail to promptly comply with takedown requests.
Despite these controls, internet access and usage continued to grow. According to Internet Live Stats, 52 percent of the population had access to the internet in 2016.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
The government restricted academic freedom and cultural events. Foreign academic professionals temporarily working at universities in the country could discuss nonpolitical topics widely and freely in classes, but government observers regularly attended classes taught by both foreigners and nationals. The government continued to require international and domestic organizations to obtain advance approval to host conferences involving international sponsorship or participation.
The government continued to prohibit any public criticism of CPV and state policy, including by independent scientific and technical organizations, even when the criticism was for a purely academic audience.
The government controlled art exhibits, music, and other cultural activities.
Local authorities denied a permit to organizers of a women’s march in Hanoi in April. Authorities continued to restrict public art displays and musical performances through requirement of substantial permission procedures, although Ho Chi Minh City authorities permitted the country’s first-ever nude art exhibition in 2017. The government allowed universities more autonomy over international exchanges and cooperation programs, but visa requirements for visiting scholars and students remained onerous.
Many activists reported Ministry of Public Security officials threatened university leaders if they did not expel activists from their respective universities and pressured them and their family members not to attend certain workshops, although their political activities were peaceful. Multiple activists also reported academic institutions refused to allow them to graduate due to their human rights advocacy.
On July 22, Hanoi officials ultimately permitted a concert by the group Mai Khoi and the Dissidents to continue in Tay Ho District, Hanoi, with heavy security presence and after several hours of negotiations. Mai Khoi subsequently shared on social media that security forces pressured her landlord to evict her following the concert.