Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The constitution and law provide for freedom of expression, including for the press; however, in practice the government did not respect these rights, and several laws specifically encroach on freedom of expression. The government also continued to use broad national security and antidefamation provisions to restrict freedom of expression. Such laws establish the crimes of “sabotaging the infrastructure of socialism,” in addition to “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 or lawful rights and interests of organizations or individuals.”
Freedom of Expression: The government continued to restrict speech that criticized individual government leaders or 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.
Representatives from state-run organizations and progovernment groups visited activists’ residences and attempted to intimidate them into agreeing the government’s policies were correct, according to social media and activists’ reports. Family members of activists also reported numerous incidents of physical harassment, intimidation, and questioning by Ministry of Public Security officials. Harassment also occurred at workplaces and included threatening telephone calls and insulting activists in local media and online and attacks on activists’ homes with rocks, shrimp paste, and gasoline bombs. There were reports such abuses caused injury and trauma requiring hospitalization.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: The CPV, government, and party-controlled mass media 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. The law requires editors in chief to be CPV members; many outlets apply this to additional managers as well. One of the leading newspapers, Thanh Nien, demoted 13 managing editors and deputy editors who were not party members in November 2018.
Many nongovernmental entities, however, produced and distributed publications by subcontracting, joint-publishing, or buying permits from government or other public publishing entities. State-run media reported private entities produced more than 90 percent of all publications in the country, although outright private ownership or operation of any media outlet or publishing house was prohibited. Media independent of government authority operated on a limited basis online, primarily via blogs and social media, but independent journalists faced government harassment.
By law the government may fine journalists and newspapers from five to 10 million Vietnamese dong (VND) ($220 to $440) for failing to cite their sources of information or for using “documents and materials from organizations and personal letters and materials from individuals.”
The law allows 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.
In November 2018 the CPV publicly denounced Chu Hao, who at that time was director and editor in chief of the Tri Thuc Publishing House, for “disobeying the Party’s regulations” and “self-evolution.” Hao, a former vice minister of science and technology and a prominent intellectual, had directed Tri Thuc to publish books with themes of freedom and democracy, such as John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, which the CPV viewed as contrary to the official party line. Hao left the CPV, and as a result also lost his position at Tri Thuc.
The law limits satellite television access to senior officials, foreigners, luxury hotels, and the press, but persons throughout the country continued to access foreign programming via home satellite equipment or cable.
The government permitted activities of journalist employed by foreign-based media outlets. The law requires “live” foreign television programming to run on a 30- to 60-minute delay to enable content monitoring. In fact, such programming 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 reports involving trade tensions between the United States and Vietnam.
Major foreign media outlets reported the government delayed or refused to issue visas for reporters who previously covered sensitive political topics, particularly reporters for the overseas Vietnamese-language press. In May an international journalist was refused a visa request to report on the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Hamburger Hill. This same reporter had previously written an article likely seen by the government as unfavorable.
The information ministry may revoke the licenses of foreign publishers; foreign publishers must renew their licenses annually.
The government also sought to impede criticism by monitoring meetings and communications of journalists.
Violence and Harassment: There continued to be a significant number of reports of security officials attacking, threatening, or arresting journalists because of their coverage of sensitive stories. Independent journalists faced restrictions on freedom of movement, various forms of harassment, and even physical attacks in the form of staged motorbike accidents if they reported on sensitive topics.
Foreign journalists required formal permission to travel outside Hanoi for reporting. When foreign journalists requested access to an area considered sensitive, such as the Northwest or Central Highlands, or report a story the government might consider sensitive, authorities often either intentionally delayed their response or denied permission to travel.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The Ministry of Information and Communications and the CPV Propaganda and Education Commission frequently intervened directly with media to dictate or censor a story.
Propaganda officials forced editors of major media 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 punished journalists for failing to self-censor, including by revoking journalists’ press credentials.
In August, two protests against Beijing’s maritime survey seeking information on petroleum reserves in an offshore area in the country ‘s exclusive economic zone took place in front of the Chinese Embassy in Hanoi and a third protest near a site popular with Chinese tourists in Danang received no local media coverage.
National Security: The law stipulates administrative fines of 20 million to 30 million 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 to be distorting history and the revolution’s achievements. In some cases, these “violations” may lead to criminal proceedings.
Citing laws protecting national security, police arrested and ordered journalists to restrict criticism of government policies or officials.
The government restricted and disrupted access to the internet, censored online content, and monitored private online communications without legal authority. The limited number of licensed internet service providers (ISPs) were fully or substantially state-controlled companies. The government monitored Facebook posts and punished those who used the internet to organize protests or publish content critical of the government. On September 22, in separate trials, the People’s Court of Cai Rang district, Can Tho City, convicted Facebook users Nguyen Hong Nguyen and Truong Dinh Khang of “abusing democratic freedoms,” and sentenced them to two years’ and one year’ imprisonment, respectively. According to NGO reporting, Nguyen reportedly used his Facebook account to read articles, watch videos, and view pictures with “antistate” content. Khang reportedly posted and shared articles on Facebook that reportedly “defamed the party, state, and Ho Chi Minh.”
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 internet service providers (ISPs) routinely blocked domestic Vietnamese-language websites that contained content criticizing the CPV or promoting political reform.
An administrative rule compels owners of all websites and social networking sites to cooperate with the Ministry of Information and Communications to prevent the spread of “bad, toxic news.” The government has used this tool to remove nearly 8,000 video clips from YouTube since 2017, according to the ministry.
Another rule 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. The government also requires such owners to submit detailed plans of their content and scope for approval. Such companies and organizations must locate at least one server in the country to facilitate government requests for information and must 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 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 Law on Cybersecurity, scheduled for implementation in January, had not as of December gone into effect, as discussions continued on the implementing decree.
The government continued to pressure firms such as Facebook and Google to eliminate “fake accounts” and content deemed “toxic,” including antistate materials. On July 9, the Ministry of Information and Communications announced Google removed nearly 6,700 video clips, YouTube blocked six YouTube channels, and Facebook blocked nearly 1,000 links, 107 fake accounts, and 137 accounts that defamed the CPV and government.
Force 47, a special unit within the Ministry of National Defense, monitored the internet for misinformation and antistate propaganda.
Authorities also suppressed online political expression by direct action against bloggers, such as arrests, short-term detentions, surveillance, intimidation, and the illegal confiscation 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 the Ministry of Public Security routinely ordered disconnection of their home internet service. In September 2018 the People’s Court of Tu Son town convicted citizen journalist Do Cong Duong of “disrupting public order” for filming a forced eviction, according to an NGO. He was sentenced to four years in prison. Duong was subsequently convicted of “abusing democratic freedoms” and sentenced in October to an additional five years in prison, reduced on appeal to four. On November 28, a brother and sister and another activist were sentenced to a combined 23 years in prison for posting articles on Facebook criticizing the government’s weak response to Chinese actions in the South China Sea, corruption, and environmental degradation.
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.
Despite this restrictive environment, numerous groups and individuals criticized current and former local and national officials or members of government affiliates on social media, particularly Facebook. In response to reports from the Ministry of Information and Communications alleging that content violated certain laws, Facebook drastically increased the amount of content restricted in Vietnam. According to Facebook’s Transparency Report, from July to December 2018, it restricted access to 1,553 posts based on local law, compared to 265 content restrictions in the first half of 2018 and only 22 restrictions in the second half of 2017.
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 for conferences involving international sponsorship or participation. The government allowed universities more autonomy over international exchanges and cooperation programs, but visa requirements for visiting scholars and students remained onerous.
The government continued to prohibit any public criticism of the CPV and state policy, including by independent scientific and technical organizations, even when the criticism was for a purely academic audience.
The government exerted influence over art exhibits, music, and other cultural activities by requiring numerous authorizations.
Many activists reported Ministry of Public Security officials threatened university leaders if they did not expel activists engaged in peaceful activities from their respective universities and pressured them and their family members not to attend certain workshops. Multiple activists also reported academic institutions refused to allow them or their children to graduate due to their advocacy of human rights.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The government restricted freedom of peaceful assembly. Laws and regulations require persons wishing to gather in a group to apply for a permit, which local authorities issued or denied without explanation. Only those arranging publicized gatherings to discuss sensitive matters appeared to require permits, however, and persons routinely gathered in informal groups without government interference. The government generally did not permit any demonstrations that could be perceived as political. The law permits security forces to detain individuals gathering or protesting outside of courthouses during trials.
The Ministry of Public Security and local police routinely prevented activists from peacefully assembling. There were numerous reports of police dispersing gatherings of environmental activists, anti-China activists, land rights advocates, human rights defenders, bloggers and independent journalists, and former political prisoners.
Police and plainclothes authorities routinely mistreated, harassed, and assaulted activists and those demonstrating against the government. On June 25, approximately 20 family members of prisoners and activists were beaten by individuals in plain clothes outside Prison No. 6 in Nghe An province while attempting to visit prisoners engaged in a 30-day hunger strike to protest maltreatment in the facility. Activists identified a number of Nghe An police officials and prisoners detained on drug offenses among the attackers. Some family members were severely beaten with wooden sticks and metal rods. The attackers also stole personal papers, money, and cell phones.
In February more than 1,500 H’mong residing in the northern provinces were physically prevented from attending traditional spring festivals. Two of the H’mong were reportedly physically assaulted by local authorities, who told festivalgoers they had been ordered to prevent them from reaching the festival location.
The constitution affords individuals the right of association, but the government severely restricted freedom of association. Seeking to suppress unwelcome political and religious activities, the country’s legal and regulatory framework includes mechanisms particularly aimed at restricting the freedom of NGOs, including religious organizations, to organize and act. The government generally prohibited the establishment of private, independent organizations, insisting that persons work within established, party-controlled mass organizations, usually under the aegis of the VFF.
Laws and regulations governing NGOs restrict their ability to engage in policy advocacy or conduct research outside of state-sanctioned topics and prohibit organizations focused on social science and technology from operating in fields such as economic policy, public policy, political issues, and a range of other areas considered sensitive. Authorities also did not permit them to distribute policy advocacy positions publicly.
The 2018 Law on Belief and Religion requires religious groups to register with authorities and to obtain official approval of their activities. Some unregistered religious groups reported an increase in government interference.
According to some recognized groups and others attempting to register, implementation of the law varied from province to province. Some registered organizations, including governance, women’s rights, and environment-focused NGOs, reported increased scrutiny of their activities.
c. Freedom of Religion
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement
The constitution provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, but the government imposed some limits on the movement of individuals, especially those convicted under national security or related charges or outspoken critics of the government.
In-country Movement: Several political activists on probation or under house arrest, along with others not facing such legal restrictions, were officially restricted in their movements. Authorities continued to monitor and selectively restrict the movement of many prominent activists and religious leaders, including Nguyen Dan Que, Pham Chi Dung, Pham Ba Hai, Nguyen Hong Quang, Thich Khong Tanh, Le Cong Cau, and Duong Thi Tan. Several activists reported authorities had confiscated their national identification cards, preventing them from traveling domestically by air or conducting routine administrative matters.
Religious leaders are required to specify no more than two to three geographical areas where they will be preaching. They reported that preaching outside of the approved areas was illegal, although enforcement of the law was inconsistent.
Government restrictions required citizens and resident foreigners to obtain a permit to visit border areas, defense facilities, industrial zones involved in national defense, areas of “national strategic storage,” and “works of extreme importance for political, economic, cultural, and social purposes.”
Citizens must register with local police when staying overnight in any location outside of their own homes; the government appeared to enforce these requirements more strictly in some Central and Northern Highlands districts. Foreign passport holders also needed to register to stay in private homes, although there were no known cases of local authorities refusing to allow foreign visitors to stay with friends or family. There were multiple reports of police using the excuse of “checking on residency registration” to intimidate and harass activists and prevent them from traveling outside of their place of registration (see sections 1.d. and 1.f.).
Authorities did not strictly enforce residency laws for the general population, and migration from rural areas to cities continued unabated. Moving without permission, however, hampered persons from obtaining legal residence permits, public education, and health-care benefits.
Foreign Travel: Prospective emigrants occasionally encountered difficulties obtaining a passport or exit permission, and authorities regularly confiscated passports of activists, at times indefinitely. There were multiple reports of individuals crossing the land borders with Laos or Cambodia illegally because they were unable to obtain passports or exit permission; in some cases, this included persons wanted for crimes and political or other activism.
The Ministry of Public Security continued to use foreign travel prohibitions against certain activists and religious leaders, including seven Catholic priests. Authorities banned and prevented dozens of individuals from traveling overseas, withheld their passports on vague charges, or refused to issue passports to certain activists or religious leaders without clear explanation although activists believed that international travel authorization was denied to reduce those activists’ opportunities to speak out against the Vietnamese government. Authorities also refused to issue passports to the family members of certain activists.
f. Protection of Refugees
Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for granting asylum or refugee status, and the government has not established a system for providing protection to refugees.
According to 2018 UNHCR statistics, there were approximately 29,500 recognized stateless persons and persons of undetermined nationality living in the country. No updated statistics were available for the year. This was a substantial increase from the estimated 11,000 stateless persons acknowledged in 2016, due to increased government effort to identify such persons. The bulk of this population are ethnic H’mong living in border areas, but it also included a number of women who lost their citizenship after marrying a foreigner but then lost their foreign citizenship, primarily because of divorce. In the past the government naturalized stateless ethnic Vietnamese who had lived in Cambodia, but there was no information on naturalization efforts or options for those identified as stateless persons during the year.
Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process
The ability of citizens to choose their government through free, fair, and periodic elections based on universal and equal suffrage and conducted by a secret ballot that guaranteed free expression and the will of the people was severely limited. Although the constitution provides the ability to elect representatives to the National Assembly, people’s councils, and other state agencies directly, constitutional and legal provisions established a monopoly of political power for the CPV; the CPV was the only party allowed to put forward candidates for office and it oversaw all elections. National Assembly elections take place once every five years by secret ballot. The constitution sets the voting age at 18 and allows candidates to run for election to the National Assembly or People’s Council at 21. The last National Assembly election took place in 2016.
Recent Elections: The 2016 National Assembly election allowed limited competition among CPV-vetted candidates but were neither free nor fair, and the government did not allow NGO monitoring. The CPV’s Fatherland Front chose and vetted all candidates through an opaque, multistage process. CPV candidates won 475 of the 496 seats. The remaining 21 were non-CPV candidates unaffiliated with any party. There were no candidates from a party other than the CPV.
According to the government, 99 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in the 2016 election, a figure activists and international observers considered improbably high. Voters may cast ballots by proxy, and officials charged local authorities with assuring that all eligible voters cast ballots by organizing group voting and verifying that all voters within their jurisdiction had voted. There were numerous reports throughout the country that election officials had stuffed ballot boxes to create the illusion of high turnout.
The law allows citizens to “self-nominate” as National Assembly candidates and submit applications for the VFF election vetting process. In the months leading up to the 2016 National Assembly elections, an informal coalition of legal reformers, academics, activists, and human rights defenders attempted to register as self-nominated, non-CPV “activist independent” candidates. In contrast to the party’s candidates, these candidates actively used Facebook and social media to advertise their policy platforms. VFF officials refused, however, to qualify any activist independent candidates, and authorities instructed official media to criticize some of them. According to press reports, the VFF allowed two self-nominated candidates on final ballots, but both individuals were party members.
Political Parties and Political Participation: Political opposition movements and other political parties are illegal. Although the constitution states that “all Party organizations and members of the CPV operate within the framework of the constitution and the laws,” the CPV Politburo in fact functioned as the supreme national decision-making body, although technically it reported to the CPV Central Committee.
Participation of Women and Minorities: No laws limit participation of women or members of minorities in the political process. The law sets a target of 35 percent of final candidates for the National Assembly and provincial people’s councils to be women and 18 percent of final candidates for the National Assembly to be from minority groups. The 132 women in the National Assembly comprise 27 percent of the body. The 86 ethnic minority delegates comprise 18 percent of the assembly.