This article is from The 88 Project, an independent Vietnam news site, was edited and played on Global Voices under a content sharing agreement.
Vietnam was revealed as a success story in managing the COVID-19 crisis as the pandemic swept across the rest of the planet. With official statistics counting only 300 confirmed cases and no deaths, there is no doubt that the authorities have achieved remarkable results by containing the spread of the disease that claimed more than 400,000 lives worldwide.
However, this great achievement should not overshadow the repressive tactics employed by the Vietnamese government to censor information related to the pandemic.
Countries such as Taiwan and the Republic of Korea have also shown the world their competition with low rates of infection and mortality. But those countries did not resort to state repression to achieve these results. In reality, many actions by the Vietnam authorities indicate that they are using the pandemic to normalize state police practices.
Public security forces control public opinion
According to an official newspaper, by the end of March, the security forces, which respond to the Ministry of Public Security, had fined 700 people for protesting about the coronavirus.
If you pay attention to the cases, most involve people who only expressed their concern on social media, concerns that the Government could well have addressed through transparency and intensive information programs to help citizens.
For example, in Ha Giang province, three teachers were fined nearly ten million dongs (about $ 450) just for saying “The epidemic is out of control,” with photos of Vietnamese patients in a quarantine area.
According to the security forces, these publications caused “unnecessary panic” in the citizenry. They also alleged that they misinformed, because the photos were from other provinces, not from Ha Giang.
In addition, a Can Tho doctor was fined for publishing a brief statement stating: “Can Tho has his first case. Inhabitants must strengthen the immune system by consuming more foods rich in vitamins and minerals. “
Local authorities in Can Tho announced the first case shortly after its publication.
Most of the online statements that were subject to fines were not dangerous to the public or harmful to national efforts against COVID-19. Still, the “perpetrators” were summoned, briefly detained, and questioned as if they had committed a serious crime.
Taking advantage of support for a “common national cause” to combat the pandemic, the authorities justify that the security apparatus becomes excessively and arbitrarily involved in public life.
Accepting this conduct will continue to weaken the role of public opinion in monitoring and balancing the already powerful Vietnamese regime, and thus, in the long run, will nullify the right to freedom of expression.
Criticism of the State as a crime
While the so-called “incitement to panic” was mainly attacked with fines, criticism of the State during the pandemic, in some cases, was punished by imprisonment.
Ma Phung Ngoc Phu, a citizen of Can Tho, was arrested on April 11, 2020 and subsequently sentenced to nine months in prison. His alleged crime was asking on Facebook: “It was learned that a person died of coronavirus in Vietnam; Why is the media not talking about this? “
Other aspects included in the investigation were his “likes” and his comments in various publications that criticized the measures and policies of the State in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Another victim of these arbitrary actions was Dinh Thi Thu Thuy, also from Can Tho. According to the accusations against him, Thuy opened many Facebook accounts to edit, publish and disseminate thousands of documents that defamed and criticized the leadership of the ruling Communist Party.
Public security forces also added that, during the “national war” against COVID-19, Thuy used social media to misrepresent state policies and create confusion for the public. Thuy is currently in pretrial detention and faces a possible sentence of between five and twelve years in prison if found guilty.
In Thai Nguyen province, the People's Procuratorate officially charged Pham Van Hai under article 288 of the Penal Code for “illegal provision or use of information on computer networks or telecommunications networks.” On social media, Hai had claimed that, in Thai Nguyen province, those infected with coronavirus had died. Hai questioned the integrity of the official information.
These cases of arbitrary criminalization of free expression constitute a violation of the formal requirements of international human rights law. Such restrictions against freedom of expression and the corresponding punishments are not “provided by law”, as required by Article 19 of the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, nor do they pass the “necessity and proportionality” test, which are explained in General Comment n ° 39 of the same agreement.
As many international law groups observed, the COVID-19 pandemic presents a unique opportunity for dictators and authoritarian regimes to claim their superiority over the old model of “liberal democracy” and to strengthen repressive systems.
A brief overview of the situation in Vietnam shows that these strategies do not help a strong and successful campaign against coronavirus. Most importantly, they threaten to further lower the bar for online repression that will prevail well beyond the pandemic.