Censorship in Vietnam: an army of online manipulation

Censorship in Vietnam: an army of online manipulation

The Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) is the only political party in Vietnam. On paper, it coexists with the Vietnamese National Front, but this is actually a kind of umbrella organization of all Vietnamese associations that are strongly in favour of the government. The CPV has centralized control over the state, the military and the media. The supremacy of the party is even guaranteed in the national constitution.

This party also takes care of all censorship in the country. The government has been censoring the internet since 2013 when it was decided that citizens were no longer allowed to discuss political or other current affairs online. The CPV is particularly hard on bloggers and news sites.

In this article, we explain exactly how censorship in Vietnam works. We’ll cover why the Communist Party censors the Internet, what content the censorship targets, and how the government applies Internet censorship.

Why is Vietnam censoring the internet?

Vietnam has almost 70 million internet users. A large part of the 100 million inhabitants, therefore, has access to the internet. According to President Tran Dai Quang, opponents are using the internet to organize political campaigns that “undermine the prestige of the party leaders and the state.” He suggested that the government was working on a solution “to prevent news sites and blogs with bad and dangerous content.”

Despite the emphasis on ‘fake news and ‘malicious content’, Vietnam’s censorship is mainly directed against the Communist Party‘s political opponents. This concerns civil and human rights organizations and religious groups such as Buddhists and Roman Catholics.

Internet censorship in Vietnam is thus a means for the Communist Party to exert political control. In this way, she can determine the political debate, tackle opponents, and remove news if this is negative towards the party.

What is the Vietnamese government censoring?

You often see countries that censor that they protect religious organizations. This is the case, for example, with Iran and Turkey. Vietnam does not do this. On the contrary; the Vietnamese government actually blocks content that promotes religious organizations.

The censorship in Vietnam also focuses on silencing the political opposition and human rights organizations.

Critical voices towards the Party

The vast majority of content censored by the Communist Party of Vietnam consists of so-called threats to party rule. This can be information about the abuses of the ruling party, or even information about other forms of government such as democracy.

Also, news media with a critical attitude towards the Communist Party are censored. For example, websites have been blacklisted that commented on the government’s response to border and maritime disputes with China. Reports about the environmental disaster in the Formosa Steel Factory were also blocked.

In addition, the government is taking action against the political opposition. She banned independent candidates from campaigning on social media in the May 2021 parliamentary election. She took this hard; some who announced their candidacy online were arrested. The government also threatened other candidates with smear campaigns.

Human rights organizations

In the past, the government has restricted access to websites of human rights organizations. Sites of organizations such as Human Rights Watch, Reporters Without Borders, Freedom House, the Red Cross, Amnesty International and Greenpeace were inaccessible to users in Vietnam. Human rights activists in the country are still having a hard time. Websites remain unstable and even endure spyware attacks. As of June 2021, 235 activists were imprisoned in the country for exercising their fundamental rights, including freedom of expression.

Religious groups

In keeping with its social values, the Communist Party of Vietnam blocks all content that promotes organized religion. These are religions such as the Cao Dai group, Buddhism and the Roman Catholic Church. The government sees organized religious groups as a threat to the state and censors them as potential political opponents.

Censorship Bypass Tools

Internet service providers (ISPs) in Vietnam have taken steps to block access to means of circumventing Internet censorship. Examples include VPNs and proxies. For some, these resources are still within reach; the censorship, therefore, depends on the subscription and your internet provider.

How does Vietnam censor the internet?

The Communist Party of Vietnam uses various methods to censor the Internet. For example:

  • Owning internet service providers and telecommunications companies.
  • Limiting connections.
  • Content manipulation.
  • (Technical) attacks.
  • Fines and other penalties.

Telecommunications as State Property

Vietnam’s censorship is in large part possible because the Communist Party has control over the country’s telecommunications infrastructure.

The Vietnam Post and Telecommunications Company (VNPT) and Viettel dominate the telecommunications sector in Vietnam. Viettel is owned by the Vietnamese army. Three of the four providers that allocate bandwidth to the country’s Internet service providers are state or military-owned.

Internet Blocks and Restrictions

The Vietnamese government regularly applies bandwidth restrictions for political reasons. She also regularly blocks access to the internet or to social media and apps, including Facebook and Instagram.

In addition to blocking access to the Internet, the government is also using its control over the telecommunications infrastructure to block the cellular signal to cell phones. In this way, during periods of political unrest, it can disrupt the communication of protesting groups and prevent the dissemination of information and news.

Regulations

The Vietnam Internet Network Information Center (VNNIC) is responsible for internet censorship in the country. The VNNIC is a sub-department of the Vietnamese Ministry of Information and Communication. It assigns Internet domain names, IP addresses, and autonomous system numbers and monitors their use.

The Ministry of Public Security (MPS) is part of the VNNIC. She oversees political censorship. In theory, MPS decisions should be transparent and consistent with government policy. However, the Ministry is not open about blacklisting websites and removing content.

Save data and block content

Since 2017, the Vietnamese government has been stepping up pressure on international content and social media platforms to remove content that the Communist Party deems “harmful.”

In the same year, the country passed a law requiring social media companies such as Facebook to remove “offensive” content from their platforms. This must be done within one day of a request from the VNNIC.

Facebook refused to comply with these regulations, after which several advertisements from Facebook and YouTube were withdrawn. The Vietnamese government commissioned this to various multinationals with offices in Vietnam. Since then, Facebook and the Vietnamese government have been engaged in a tug-of-war. Sometimes Facebook responds to the requests of the VNNIC, other times it takes the loss of revenue for granted.

Another law requires technology companies with offices in Vietnam to store user data . The Information Security Act allows government agencies to share users’ personal data with each other without permission. The companies are also required to hand over data decryption keys to the Vietnamese authorities upon request.

With a law from 2021, Vietnam wants to create a new government agency. This person will then be given control over the processing of personal data of, among others, social media companies, banks and healthcare institutions.

The government also announced a new draft law requiring social media platforms to hand over user contact information to the state. This concerns user of accounts with more than 10,000 followers or subscribers.

Manipulating content

The government is actively trying to manipulate public opinion. In the capital Hanoi, a military unit of 10,000 men is working to influence opinions online. They fight “misconceptions” and remove “bad and dangerous content.”

These pro-government online manipulators monitor social media content, gather information about users and direct online discussions to align with the views and opinions of the Communist Party of Vietnam. Since its inception in 2017, the so-called  Force 47 has set up hundreds of Facebook groups and pages and posted thousands of pro-government articles and posts.

Technical Attacks

Computers belonging to human rights organizations have been attacked several times since 2009. Vietnamese-language programs infected the computers with botnet software. This software was designed to support DDoS attacks on news websites and blogs considered critical of the government.

Leaked – and subsequently published – documents in 2017 revealed that the government-sponsored hackers to conduct a cyber-espionage campaign. This campaign targeted Vietnamese media organizations, the Vietnamese diaspora in Australia, and companies with interests in Vietnam.

Fines and dismissals

Journalists who write articles critical of the communist government can be punished with fines, disciplinary warnings, dismissal and even jail time.

According to the decree, the government can impose 174 fines of up to 100 million Vietnamese dong (about 4,000 euros) on anyone who criticizes the government, the Party or national heroes. The same fine applies to the spreading of propaganda and ideology against the state on social media.

The MPS has already been enforced hard on several occasions. For example, she has withdrawn the press card of Mai Phan Loi, a journalist at the Ho Chi Minh City Law Newspaper. Mai Phan Loi posted a poll on a Facebook page about the crash of a Vietnamese maritime patrol plane. He wrote that the plane had “exploded to pieces,” which the government said was inappropriate language and disrespectful to the military.

The Ministry of Information and Communications said the journalist has “seriously damaged the reputation of the Vietnamese army.” He is also said to have hurt the feelings of families and colleagues of the killed soldiers and damaged the reputation of other journalists.

When journalists protested the withdrawal of Loi’s press card, the Minister of Information and Communications issued a statement. In it he made it clear to journalists that they should be careful when using social networks, or accept the consequences.

Prison sentences

Under Articles 79, 88 and 258 of Vietnam’s Penal Code, bloggers and online activists can be prosecuted and imprisoned for crimes such as subversion, anti-state propaganda and abuse of democratic freedoms.

For example, there is a maximum sentence of five years in prison for “carrying out activities aimed at overthrowing the government.” The same applies to “creating, storing, distributing or propagating material and products aimed at opposing the state.”

Attacks on online journalists

Bloggers and online activists in Vietnam are not only threatened with censorship and jail time; they are also victims of physical attacks. According to Human Rights Watch, 36 such attacks took place between 2015 and 2017. Some even happened in full view of police stations or police officers, who subsequently did not intervene.

Conclusion

The Communist Party of Vietnam is actively censoring the internet. Most of the censorship targets the political opposition and human rights organizations. With new laws from 2017, the state is moving in an increasingly repressive direction. The government is cracking down on online freedoms. Journalists and users of social media can also count on a firm approach if they express themselves even slightly critical of the government.

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