Human rights groups Tuesday criticized Vietnam’s new controversial law that prevents internet users from sharing news articles, saying the one-party Communist state has designed the decree to clamp down on dissent.
The new law, called Decree 72, which went into effect September 1, seeks to limit social websites and blogs to the exchanging of personal information, and forbids the posting of material from news stories online.
It also requires foreign internet companies to have their local servers in Vietnam, and bans online publication of any material that ‘harms national security’.
Critics say the law is further evidence of the Vietnamese government’s crackdown on the Internet.
The government claims the law is aimed at stemming the illegal dissemination of intellectual property.
“This is Vietnam vaulting to the head of the crowd on internet censorship in South East Asia,” said Phil Robertson from Human Rights Watch while speaking to CNN.
“The fact that it will effectively criminalise the sharing of information and the sharing of links by requiring that online social media only include originally written material is really quite a jump.”
He also said it was clear Vietnamese citizens were heavily criticizing the government on the Internet.
“This is a case of the empire strikes back,” Robertson said, and noted that while the government would not likely monitor every Facebook page, but would focus on a list of known activists who would come under increased scrutiny.
According to Reporters Without Borders, as many as 35 bloggers and netizens are currently in Vietnam’s jails on anti-state charges, some of them with sentences as long as 13 years.
Hoang Vinh Bao, head of Vietnam’s Department of Radio, TV and Electronic Information, last month told the state media that the new law would only be directed toward those who ‘underminded national unity’, and would not limit freedom of the press or of social media users.
The official Nhan Dan newspaper printed an article last month defending the new laws, saying they were aimed at those who use social media to “defame the prestige and honor of others” and “incite hostility to the government.”
But Robertson says “”The government is desperate to make it appear that this is not aimed primarily at dissidents which is why they’ve rolled out various excuses including the protection of intellectual property.”
Vietnam is currently facing an explosion of growth on the internet, with an estimated 34% of its 90 million people connected online.
And while China has placed social sites like Facebook and YouTube outside the ‘Great Firewall of China’, Vietnam is playing catch up in its crackdown.
Robertson explained to CNN, “The Internet in terms of the Vietnamese language has really become a super highway of information sharing. It also goes to the literary traditions of Vietnam — it’s a very learned society.”
The embassy added that the internet law “appears to be inconsistent with Vietnam’s obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, as well as its commitments under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”
At the same time that Vietnam has been increasing the pressure on dissidents, it has also been trying to improve its human rights image. It recently opened a dialogue with Amnesty International, allowing the human rights watchdog to meet with both dissidents and government officials for the first time since the end of the Vietnam War.
It is also drafting a constitution that addresses civil liberties and religious tolerance, and is in negotiations for a free trade zone under the U.S.-led Trans Pacific Partnership.
In July, Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang held talks at the White House with President Obama which included issues of Vietnam’s human rights record.
At the conclusion of those talks, President Obama said, “We had a very candid conversation about both the progress that Vietnam is making and the challenges that remain.” Image/AP