Contentious legislation that effectively prohibits Vietnamese bloggers and users of social-networking sites from discussing current affairs came into force Sunday amid a fierce response from advocacy groups. Vietnam ranked as the 8th worst country in the world for Internet freedom in 2012, according to Freedom House, but this already deplorable rating is likely to plummet further after Decree 72 banned the publishing of material that “opposes” the Socialist Republic of Vietnam or “harms national security” among other vaguely phrased curbs. News information, even if it is official, is held to come under these categories.
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Online access is tightly controlled in the communist-run Southeast Asian state, and 46 bloggers and democracy activists have been imprisoned so far this year— more than the whole of 2012 — for allegedly spreading antigovernment propaganda. Strikes and social unrest have erupted in Vietnam recently as the once buoyant economy has nose-dived, and activists claim that they are merely drawing attention to long-standing social and political problems such as inflation, land-rights abuses and rampant corruption. However, according the new legislation, social-media users cannot quote “general information” or “information from newspapers, press agencies or other state-owned websites” but can only “provide or exchange personal information.”
Lands-rights activist Bui Thi Minh Hang, 49, has been blogging from her home outside Ho Chi Minh City since May 2012 and receives around 10,000 page views each day. The mother of three has been repeatedly imprisoned for her work and says intimidation is already ferocious. “I use my blog as a diary to tell my [prison] story — about discrimination, harassment and human-rights abuses there,” she tells TIME. “I know the authorities — security police — are definitely watching my blog because they tap my telephone and hack my e-mail. They follow me in the street and break in and ransack my house.”
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Press-freedom groups have expressed outrage over Decree 72 and called for international pressure to be ramped up. “The decree is both nonsensical and extremely dangerous,” Reporters Without Borders said in a statement, adding that the new rules “will reinforce the legislative arsenal available to the authorities.” Meanwhile, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has called on U.S. President Barack Obama to take a tougher line with Hanoi. “We believe that future diplomatic, economic and strategic relations with Vietnam should be predicated on a greater commitment to political openness and demonstrable progress on press freedom conditions,” CPJ executive director Joel Simon said in an open letter.
Vietnam is currently part of the U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership — a new free-trade agreement involving 11 separate regional nations — and some have suggested that ongoing negotiations might present suitable leverage. In addition, the U.S. has provided $595 million for relief and development activities in Vietnam since 2000. The U.S. ambassador to Vietnam, David Shear, said last month he had discussed “very specific ways” that President Truong Tan Sang’s Administration can improve human rights, including “releasing all political prisoners” and making “improvements in freedom of religion.”
Apart from restrictions on blogging and social-media content, Decree 72 also stipulates that foreign companies wanting to work online in Vietnam must keep at least one server inside the country — a provision widely seen as an attempt to boost government control. Some of the world’s biggest Web companies, which had previously been allowed to operate without any technical presence on the ground, have expressed their opposition, citing higher costs that would stifle innovation. “We believe that the decree will negatively affect Vietnam’s Internet ecosystem,” said the Asia Internet Coalition, which represents Google, Facebook and other leading online companies.