Vietnamese shrimp farmer and activist Nguyen Ngoc Anh was sentenced June 6 to six years in prison and five of house arrest for a series of 2018 Facebook posts that criticized the Communist government, and were therefore deemed “anti-state”.
Anh was arrested in August 2018 in Ben Tre province on charges (according to Article 117 of the 2015 Criminal Code) of storing, making, spreading, and declaring information and documents to combat Vietnam’s government. The indictment also stated that Anh created private Facebook groups to discuss and call for protests.
The specific content of his social media isn’t known, but Human Rights Watch noted that the environmental activist also participated in protests in 2016 against the steel company Formosa, whose toxic waste dumping killed marine life off Vietnam’s central coast.
According to RFA’s Vietnamese service, Anh’s wife, Nguyen Thi Chau, said her husband isn’t guilty, and that he was set up. Chau described it as a “staged trial”. Chau said Anh acknowledged broadcasting 74 live videos about political and social issues, but did not admit his guilt.
The Tuesday before the verdict, HWR called for the Vietnamese government to immediately release Anh. This was followed by a call from the European Union the Thursday of the verdict, which cited the freedom of opinion as a form of social justice. The EU also asked for the Vietnamese government to release everyone imprisoned for fighting for human rights, especially since they had been expressing their views peacefully.
According to Amnesty International, Vietnam has at least 128 political prisoners, with 10% jailed for social media posts. The EU noted this sentence to be part of a crackdown on critical voices and dissent.
At the same time, the Vietnamese government is considering new laws for social media content, especially in terms of filtering content. “They have realized that Facebook was one of the last safe spaces where people could peacefully speak their mind, spread news, hold debates — everything the authorities are afraid of,” said Nguyen Truong Son, Amnesty International’s Vietnam campaigner, according to the NY Post.
This past January, a new cybersecurity law was approved by legislators, requiring technology companies who operated in Vietnam to store user data there, as well as set up local offices. This sent technology and human rights groups into a frenzy as they questioned the law, especially as to how safe users’ company information was. In the same month, the Vietnamese government accused Facebook of allowing people to post anti-government information. Facebook said that in the last half of 2018 it increased the amount of blocked content to Vietnamese users by over 500 percent.
U.S. lawmakers also called for the curbing of arrests of bloggers and journalists in the name of freedom of expression. The government is punishing people who are peaceably expressing their opinions, stated Amnesty International. For example, blogger and activist Tran Thi Nga is currently serving nine years for spreading propaganda against the Vietnamese state. Other political prisoners have been moved to different prisons, where family members are told they are being disciplined.
Unfortunately, even with other governments and human rights groups urging otherwise, it is unlikely that anything will change soon about the one-party Vietnamese government’s policy towards political prisoners. Another element of the recent cybersecurity law concerns posted information; if companies receive takedown notices for perceived offensive content, they must comply within 24 hours, or risk breaking the law. There is no date as to when the new law will be put into effect.
NOEMI ARELLANO-SUMMER is a journalist and writer living in Boston, MA. She is a voracious reader and has a fondness for history and art. She is currently at work on her first novel and wants to eventually take a trip across Europe.