a. Freedom of Expression, Including for Members of the Press and Other Media
The constitution and law provide for freedom of expression, including for members of the press and other media; however, 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 in the law to restrict freedom of expression. Such provisions establish crimes such as “sabotaging the infrastructure of socialism,” “sowing divisions between religious and nonreligious people,” and “propagandizing against the state” as serious offenses against national security. The law 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 the People’s Republic of China.
Representatives from state-run organizations and progovernment groups visited activists’ residences and attempted to propagandize or intimidate them into supporting government policies, 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.
On April 26, Lam Dong People’s Court sentenced Dinh Van Hai to five years in prison and three years’ probation for “spreading information, materials, items for the purpose of opposing the state,” according to Radio Free Asia. In October 2021 the People’s Police newspaper reported police arrested Hai for articles and videos that “criticized the socialist construction, distorted the past and denied revolutionary achievement” and “insulted Ho Chi Minh and discredited leadership of the Party and the state.” According to Radio Free Asia, authorities did not notify Hai’s family of his trial; they learned of it through a legal representative.
On June 9, the Ben Tre People’s Court sentenced Nguyen Duy Linh to five years in prison and five years’ probation for “spreading information, materials, items for the purpose of opposing the state.” Local media reported his arrest in September 2021 and alleged that since 2017, Linh created social media content “with defaming content, slandering [the] people’s government, caus(ing) public confusion and offending Party and state leadership comrades.” Media reported that Linh was critical of the government’s COVID-19 policies and police questioned and fined him for his social media posts prior to his arrest.
Violence and Harassment: Independent journalists faced restrictions on freedom of movement, other forms of harassment, and physical attacks if they reported on sensitive topics. The government also monitored journalists’ meetings and communications. The government punished journalists for failing to self-censor, including by revoking journalists’ press credentials.
On April 5, the Ho Chi Minh City People’s Court sentenced journalist Nguyen Hoai Nam to three years and six months in prison for “abusing democratic freedoms.” Earlier Nam exposed a corruption scandal at the Vietnam Inland Waterways Agency. This led to a criminal investigation, which concluded that 14 individuals, including government officials, had committed bribery totaling over five billion dong ($201,000) between 2015 and 2016; however, no indictments, arrests, or other legal action followed. Nam criticized the investigation until his arrest in April 2021.
Censorship or Content Restrictions for Members of the Press and Other 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 Publicity and Education Commission. This includes requiring media outlets to be affiliated with a government body. The law requires editors-in-chief to be CPV members.
The government may fine journalists and newspapers for failing to cite their sources of information or for using “documents and materials from organizations and personal letters and materials from individuals, without clearly stating the sources of such information.” The law allows the government to punish publishers if they publish false information or content the government deems objectionable.
Authorities frequently intervened directly with media to dictate or censor a story, and only permitted media outlets to report on predetermined topics; the Ministry of Information and Communication fined outlets that reported unapproved political and socioeconomic news. Pervasive self-censorship, including among independent journalists and bloggers, due to the threat of dismissal and possible arrest, assisted the party and government to control media content.
Media independent of government authority operated on a limited basis online, primarily via blogs and social media, but independent journalists faced government harassment.
Journalists employed by foreign-based media outlets operated under significant restrictions. For example foreign journalists required formal permission to travel outside Hanoi, and “live” foreign television programming must run on a 30- to 60-minute delay to enable content monitoring.
On July 7, the Ministry of Information and Communications imposed a 325 million dong ($13,100) fine on the Vietnam Law Newspaper and suspended the license for its online news site for three months after the press authority deemed it had published “false information” and “sensational” and “deductive and unfounded” content that showed a “lack of professionalism.”
Libel/Slander Laws: Defamation is a criminal offense, and the laws were enforced, especially against critics of the Communist Party and government.
On January 17, the People’s Court in Dak Lak sentenced Pham Dinh Quy, a lecturer at Ton Duc Thang University, to 33 months in prison for “slandering” the former secretary of the Dak Lak Party Committee, Bui Van Cuong. In 2019 Quy filed a complaint accusing Cuong of plagiarizing major portions of his doctoral thesis. Authorities held Quy under “urgent arrest” since 2020. The Dak Lak court also sentenced former police officer Hoang Minh Tuan to 30 months in prison. Tuan received and signed Quy’s complaints before sending them to Party and government agencies, including the Central Inspection Committee, which concluded that the complaints were unfounded.
National Security: The law provides for significant fines against journalists, newspapers, and online media that publish or broadcast information deemed harmful to national interests or for disseminating information considered to distort history and the revolution’s achievements. In some cases, these “violations” may lead to criminal proceedings. No such cases were reported in the year to October, but editors noted that publications and journalists must be careful of national security laws, contributing to self-censorship.
Citing laws protecting national security, police arrested and ordered journalists to restrict criticism of government policies or officials in prior years.
The law allows the government to restrict and disrupt access to the internet, censor online content, impose criminal sentences for online expression, and routinely monitor private online communications. The limited number of licensed internet service providers were fully or substantially state-controlled companies. The government monitored Facebook and other social media and punished those who used the internet to organize protests or publish content critical of the government.
On January 5, Dong Nai police arrested blogger Nguyen Thai Hung and his wife Vu Thi Kim Hoang for “abusing democratic freedoms.” Hung operated the “Speak by Truth TV” YouTube channel that often shared content critical of the government and had nearly 40,000 followers. Police arrested Hung while he was live streaming on YouTube.
In September several prominent social media critics of the state were fined or arrested in a three-day period. On September 6, Thai Binh police fined game streamer Nguyen Thi Thanh Loan 10 million dong ($422) after she made a comment while live streaming that was construed as insulting the president. Loan was fined for spreading inaccurate information and slandering and defaming individuals. On September 7, Danang City police arrested Bui Tuan Lam for “spreading information against the state.” Lam in November 2021 posted a video of himself on social media imitating the Turkish chef, Salt Bae, who appeared in a separate video handfeeding a gold-coated steak to Minister of Public Security To Lam in London. On September 8, Dak Lak Province police arrested Dang Dang Phuoc for “spreading information against the State,” according to state media. The Ho Chi Minh City Law Newspaper alleged that since 2019, Phuoc had posted slanderous articles and videos against the government. Phuoc was a vocal critic of the government with a large following on social media.
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 routinely blocked domestic Vietnamese-language websites that contained content criticizing the CPV or promoted political reform.
An administrative regulation 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.”
Another rule requires all companies and organizations operating websites providing content on “politics, economics, culture, and society” or operating social networks, including blogging platforms, to register with the government. 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 internet service providers and requires internet service providers to provide technical assistance and workspace to public security agents to allow them to monitor internet activities. The Ministry of Public Security required “internet agents,” including cybercafes, to register the personal information of their customers, store records of internet sites visited by customers, and participate in government investigations of online activity. Internet cafes continued to use government-approved software to monitor customers’ online activities. The Ministry of Public Security enforced these and other requirements and monitored the internet selectively.
The government pressured firms such as Facebook and Google to eliminate “fake accounts” and content deemed “toxic,” including “antistate” materials. The Ministry of Information and Communications pressured social media platforms to comply with political-speech takedown requests, especially for posts critical of senior CPV officials.
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 from activists and their 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 periodically ordered the disconnection of their home internet service.
Users of state-sponsored social networks and blogs were 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.
Restrictions on Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
The government restricted academic freedom and cultural events. Foreign academic professionals temporarily working at universities in the country could generally 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. Police sometimes attended these events as uninvited observers. The government allowed universities more autonomy over international exchanges and cooperation programs, but provincial and central authorities occasionally refused university requests to host foreign scholars and exchange participants. Visa requirements for visiting scholars and students remained onerous and fees and conditions were applied inconsistently.
Viewers reported interruption of coverage 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. For example, in November viewers reported a cable network stopped international news coverage of COVID-related protests in China, citing problems with the satellite signal.
The Ministry of Information and Communications may revoke the licenses of foreign publishers; foreign publishers must renew their licenses annually.
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 presented to a purely academic audience.
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. Many nongovernmental entities, however, produced and distributed publications by subcontracting, joint publishing, or buying permits from government or other public publishing entities.
The government exerted influence over art exhibits, music, and other cultural activities by requiring numerous authorizations.
On July 16, authorities disrupted a workshop on Ukrainian culture held at the Southeast and North Asia Institute of Technology and Development Research (SENA) in Hanoi with the participation of many academics and Ukrainian diplomats. Police prevented some participants from leaving home to attend the workshop and cut off the institute’s power during it.
On July 27, the Ministry of Public Security charged Nguyen Son Lo, former president of SENA, with “abusing democratic freedom.” Lo had written several books and articles calling for CPV and government reforms and circulated his writings among CPV members. In January 2021 a Bach Thong District, Bac Kan Province government’s website stated that his writings instilled “reactionary thoughts into the minds of government officials, party members and the public.”
On August 17, the Ho Chi Minh City Department for Culture and Sports fined artist Bui Quang Vien 25 million dong ($1,050) for organizing a painting exhibition without a permit and demanded he destroy all the exhibited paintings. After a public backlash against the government’s actions, authorities rescinded the requirement that the artist destroy his paintings.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The government restricted the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
Freedom of Peaceful Assembly
Although permitted by the constitution, the government restricted freedom of peaceful assembly. Laws and regulations require permits for group gatherings, which local authorities issued or denied without explanation. Only those arranging publicized gatherings to discuss matters the government considered “sensitive” appeared to require permits. 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. Persons routinely gathered in informal groups without government interference so long as the gathering was not perceived as political or a threat to the state. For example the government permitted small groups of individuals to protest land rights concerns for short periods in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.
In prior years police and plainclothes authorities routinely mistreated, harassed, and assaulted activists and those demonstrating against the government. No major demonstrations against the government were permitted during the year.
Freedom of Association
The constitution affords individuals the right of association, but the government severely restricted the establishment of associations involved in what the government considered “sensitive” fields such as politics, religion, and labor rights. 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 CPV’s Vietnam Fatherland Front (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 matters, and a range of other areas considered sensitive. Authorities also did not permit NGOs generally to publicly advocate specific policy positions.
According to some recognized groups and others attempting to register, implementation of the law varied from province to province. They reported that the process was burdensome, lengthy, and that authorities often did not respond to their applications.
d. Freedom of Movement and the Right to Leave the Country
The constitution provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, but the government regularly imposed limits on the movement of individuals, especially those released after serving sentences under national security or related charges or outspoken critics of the government.
In-Country Movement: 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 (or their hosts) must register with local police when staying overnight in any location outside their own homes. Foreign passport holders must also 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.
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 accessing public education, health care, and other government services.
Authorities restricted the movements of several political activists on probation or under house arrest, along with others not facing such legal restrictions. Authorities also continued to monitor and selectively restrict the movement of prominent activists and religious leaders. Authorities continued to prevent activists from leaving their houses during events that might draw public attention.
Several activists, such as Nguyen Tien Trung, Pham Thanh Nghien, and Bui Thi Minh Hang, reported plainclothes police prevented them from leaving their houses, especially during holidays or visits by senior foreign diplomats.
Foreign Travel: Prospective emigrants occasionally encountered difficulties obtaining a passport or exit permission, and authorities regularly confiscated passports of activists and government critics, at times indefinitely. The law allows authorities to postpone the departure of any person on various broad grounds, including for national security and defense. 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 disapproved activities.
The Ministry of Public Security continued to use foreign travel prohibitions against certain activists and religious leaders. 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. Activists believed they were not authorized to travel abroad to reduce their opportunities to speak out against the government. Authorities also refused to issue passports to the family members of certain activists.
On April 9, customs officers at Ho Chi Minh City’s Tan Son Nhat airport prevented Pastor A Dao from leaving for an international religious freedom conference and told him that he had a travel ban. Upon his return to Kon Tum Province, A Dao was detained and interrogated for two days. After his release, plainclothes police continued monitoring and harassing him.
Many ethnic minority Christians in the Central Highlands reported local authorities denied their passport applications.