Vietnam’s journalists and social media users face a new obstacle to independent reporting through a government decree that imposes harsh penalties for sharing information deemed harmful to the country.
Observers and rights activists see the decree, due to go into effect Dec. 1, as part of Hanoi’s increasing efforts to tighten control over the news media.
Since January, Vietnam has arrested about 20 journalists, publishers and social media users over critical content; demanded that Facebook agree to censor “anti-state” posts; issued a one-month publishing ban on the news website Phu Nu Online over its investigations into environmental damage; and, last week, arrested prominent blogger and democracy activist Pham Doan Trang.
Under the latest decree, signed Oct. 7 by Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, anyone sharing information that authorities deem harmful but not serious enough for a criminal penalty could face steeper fines and a longer, 12-month suspension.
For example, the penalty for “posting or disseminating information unsuitable for the interests of the nation and people” carries an administrative fine of up to 200 million Vietnamese dong (U.S. $8,600). The offense of “providing untrue information to the public that distorts and defames individuals and organizations” carries fines of up to 40 million Vietnamese dong (U.S. $1,723).
The law previously allowed for fines of up to 100 million Vietnamese dong (US $4,300) and suspensions of up to six months. The most severe order was a three-month ban the Ministry of Information and Communications imposed on news outlet Tuoi Tre Online in July 2018. The ministry accused the outlet of disseminating false news over its reporting on the president’s comments on a protest law.
Provincial people’s committees and local authorities, along with the Ministry of Information and Communications and the Press Authority, will have power to issue the penalties.
Appeals are allowed, but administrative fines in Vietnam have to be paid within 10 days.
Independent journalist Vo Van Tao from Khanh Hoa province, who used to work for state-run newspapers, told VOA Vietnamese the increased fines are harsh.
“Financially, for many small outlets, the fines of VND 200 million are considered as bankruptcy,” Vo said. “Suspension of the license up to 12 months is very severe. I feel that being suspended for three months is very severe already.”
Vo said the decree appears part of a consistent policy by the government to “always stifle press freedom.”
“The Vietnamese press is not the same as overseas. The country is governed by one-party rule. It does not accept pluralism or multiparty. It does not accept criticism,” Vo said. “They explicitly and unequivocally declare that the press is a propaganda tool of the party and state.”
Vietnam has a poor record for free media, ranking 175 out of 180 countries, where 1 is the most free, on an annual index compiled by media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF).
RSF said the “level of terror has risen sharply in the past two years, with many citizen-journalists being jailed or expelled in connection with their posts."
Journalists at state-run and state-approved outlets have to register and meet certain requirements, such as having a press card and press activity permit. Because of that, bloggers and independent journalists like Vo often use social media platforms to publish reporting.
But independent journalists, such as Pham Doan Trang, who was jailed earlier this month, are at greater risk of arrest.
The journalist’s Oct. 6 arrest “is another leap forward into an outright crackdown by the Communist Party of Vietnam,” Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk, told VOA Vietnamese.
“RSF is appalled by the arrest of Pham Doan Trang, who was honored with our Press Freedom Award for Impact exactly one year ago. Her only crime was to provide her fellow citizens with trustful information and enable them to fully exercise their rights,” Bastard said.
Pham, an outspoken democracy activist and author, was arrested on anti-state propaganda charges, police and state media said.
Rights groups condemned the arrest, which took place hours after annual U.S.-Vietnam human rights talks, and they warned that the blogger risked torture in custody.
Pham, who was arrested at an apartment in Ho Chi Minh City, is accused of “making, storing, distributing or disseminating information, documents and items against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam,” To An Xo, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Public Security, said.
The blogger writes about legal issues, citizen rights and politics, and in September he released a joint investigative report into a government attack on a village that was the center of a land dispute.
The U.S. State Department expressed concern over Pham’s arrest.
“Her detention could impact freedom of expression in Vietnam. We urge the Vietnamese government to ensure its actions and laws are consistent with Vietnam’s international obligations and commitments,” the State Department said in a statement sent to VOA via email.
This story originated in VOA’s Vietnam Service.
Thai Parliament Opens Special Session Over Protest Tensions
Thailand’s Parliament began a special session Monday that was called to address tensions as pro-democracy protests draw students and other demonstrators into the streets almost daily demanding the prime minister's resignation.
As Speaker of the House Chuan Leekpai began the session, only 450 of the total of 731 members of both houses had signed in for the meeting.
The demonstrations by student-led groups in the Bangkok and other cities have three main demands: that Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha step down, the constitution be amended to make it more democratic and reforms be made to the monarchy to make it more accountable.
Public criticism of the monarchy is unprecedented in a country where the royal institution has been considered sacrosanct, and royalists have denounced the protesters for raising the issue.
“The only way to a lasting solution for all sides that is fair for those on the streets as well as for the many millions who choose not to go on the streets is to discuss and resolve these differences through the parliamentary process,” Prayuth said last week.
The non-voting session of Parliament is expected to last two days.
The protesters have little confidence in the parliamentary path, declaring the government’s efforts insincere.
They noted the points of discussion submitted by Prayuth’s government for debate dealt not with the protesters' concerns but were thinly disguised criticisms of the protests themselves.
They concern instead the risk of the coronavirus spreading at rallies, the alleged interference with a royal motorcade by a small crowd earlier this month, and illegal gatherings and the destruction of images of the royal family.
The protesters allege Prayuth, who led a coup in 2014 as the army chief, was returned to power unfairly in last year’s election because laws had been changed to favor a pro-military party. The protesters also say the constitution, written and enacted under military rule, is undemocratic.
Parliament in September was scheduled to vote on six proposed constitutional amendments but instead set up a committee to further consider such proposals, and then recessed.
Constitutional changes require a joint vote of the House and the Senate, but the proposals lack support in the Senate, whose members are not elected and are generally very conservative and hostile to the protesters.
Instead of confronting lawmakers and counter-protesters on Monday, the pro-democracy protest organizers have called for an afternoon march to the German Embassy, apparently to bring attention to the time King Maha Vajiralongkorn spends in Germany.
Germany's foreign minister, questioned in Parliament by a member of the Green Party, recently expressed concern over any political activities the king might be conducting on the country's soil.
Protesters’ criticism of the royal institution has roiled conservative Thais. Self-proclaimed “defenders of the monarchy” mobilized last week online and in rallies in several cities, in many cases led by local civil servants.
A small group of royalist demonstrators were outside Parliament on Monday morning, saying they were there to let lawmakers know of their opposition to any changes in the status of the monarchy.
Typhoon Displaces Thousands, Floods Villages in Philippines
A fast-moving typhoon forced thousands of villagers to flee to safety in provinces south of the Philippine capital Monday, flooding rural villages and ripping off roofs, officials said.
There were no immediate reports of casualties from Typhoon Molave, but authorities reported at least one person was missing and seven others were rescued after their yacht sank off Batangas province south of Manila.
The typhoon has sustained winds of 125 kilometers (77 miles) per hour and gusts of up to 180 kph (112 miles) per hour and was blowing westward at 25 kph (15 mph). Molave is expected to start blowing out of the country into the South China Sea on Monday, government forecasters said.
At least 25,000 villagers were displaced with about 20,000 taking shelter in schools and government buildings which were turned into evacuation centers, according to the Office of Civil Defense.
“Villagers are now asking to be rescued because of the sudden wind which blew away roofs,” Humerlito Dolor, governor of Oriental Mindoro province, told DZMM radio.
Dolor said pounding rains overnight swamped farming villages in his province then fierce winds toppled trees and power posts early on Monday, knocking off power. Authorities were clearing roads of fallen trees and debris in some towns after the typhoon passed, he said.
More than 1,800 cargo truck drivers, workers and passengers were stranded in ports after the coast guard barred ships and ferry boats from venturing into rough seas.
About 20 typhoons and storms annually batter the Philippines, and the Southeast Asian archipelago is seismically active, with earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, making it one of the world’s most disaster-prone countries.
Australian Anguish at Passenger Strip Searches in Qatar
The Australian Broadcasting Corporation reports Australia has formally complained about what it is calling the "offensive and grossly inappropriate" treatment of passengers at Doha airport in Qatar. The report says thirteen Australian women were taken off a flight to Sydney after a newborn baby was found in an airport bathroom and the travelers were forced to have invasive internal examinations.
Airport authorities say when a premature baby was discovered in a bathroom at the Hamad International Airport in Doha, Qatar, on October 2, all female passengers onboard a flight preparing to fly to Sydney were taken off the aircraft. The group included 13 Australian women.
They were taken to two ambulances waiting outside the airport and subjected to strip searches. Some of the women have told local media they were terrified and were not told why the examinations were being carried out.
The Australian Federal Police have been informed, although it is unclear what powers investigators might have over an incident that occurred in the Middle East.
Australian foreign minister Marise Payne says Australia has formally complained to Qatar.
“We also understand the matter has been reported to the Australian Federal Police. This is a grossly, grossly disturbing, offensive, concerning set of events. It is not something I have ever heard of occurring in my life in any context. We have made our views very clear to the Qatari authorities on this matter,” Payne said.
Media reports have said the Australian women could take legal action against authorities in Qatar.
Australian Labor opposition leader Anthony Albanese says their treatment has been unbelievable.
“Reports of this treatment are really disturbing. The idea that women could be subject to these very intrusive searches is in my view an absolute disgrace," Albanese said.
In a statement, airport officials in Doha said the baby was “safe” and being cared for in Qatar.
They added that medical staff had expressed concern to them “about the health and welfare of a mother who had just given birth and requested she be located prior to departing.”
Australian authorities have said they are expecting a report on the incident from the Qatari Government later this week.
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