Facebook has received much criticism recently around the removal of content and its lack of transparency as to the reasons why. Although it maintains their right as a private company to remove content that violates community guidelines, many critics claim this disproportionately targets marginalised people and groups. A report by ProPublica in June 2017 found that Facebook’s secret censorship policies “tend to favour elites and governments over grassroots activists and racial minorities”.
The company claims in their community standards that they don’t censor posts that are newsworthy or raise awareness, but this clearly isn’t always the case.
The Rohingya people
Most recently, almost a year after the human rights groups’ letter, Facebook has continuously censored content related to the Rohingya people, a stateless minority who mostly reside in Burma. Rohingya have repeatedly been banned from Facebook for posting about atrocities committed against them. The story resurfaced amid claims that Rohingya people will be offered sterilisation in refugee camps.
Refugees have used Facebook as a tool to document the accounts of ethnic cleansing against their communities in refugee camps and Burma’s conflict zone, the Rakhine State. These areas range from difficult to impossible to be reached by reporters, making first-hand accounts so important.
Rohingya activists told the Daily Beast that their accounts are frequently taken down or suspended when they post about their persecution by the Burmese military.
Dakota Access Pipeline protesters
In September 2016 Facebook admitted removing a live video posted by anti-Dakota Access Pipeline activists in the USA. The video showed police arresting around two dozen protesters, although after the link was shared access was denied to viewers.
Facebook blamed their automated spam filter for censoring the video, a feature that is often criticised for being vague and secretive.
In the same month as the Dakota Access Pipeline video, Facebook suspended the accounts of editors from two Palestinian news publications based in the occupied West Bank without providing a reason. There are no reports of the journalists violating the networking site’s community standards, but the editors allege their pages may have been censored because of a recent agreement between the US social media giant and the Israeli government aimed at tackling posts inciting violence.
Facebook later released a statement which stated: “Our team processes millions of reports each week, and we sometimes get things wrong.”
US police brutality
In July 2016 a Facebook live video was censored for showing the aftermath of a black man shot by US police in his car. Philando Castile was asked to provide his license and registration but was shot when attempting to do so, according to Lavish Reynolds, Castile’s girlfriend who posted the video.
The video does not appear to violateFacebook’s community standards. According to these rules, videos depicting violence should only be removed if they are “shared for sadistic pleasure or to celebrate or glorify violence”.
“Facebook has long been a place where people share their experiences and raise awareness about important issues,” the policy states. “Sometimes, those experiences and issues involve violence and graphic images of public interest or concern, such as human rights abuses or acts of terrorism.”
Reynold’s video was to condemn wrongful violence and therefore was appropriate to be shown on the website.
Facebook blamed the removal of the video on a glitch.
Swedish breast cancer awareness video
In October 2016, Facebook removed a Swedish breast cancer awareness campaign that had depictions of cartoon breasts. The breasts were abstract circles in different shades of pinks. The purpose of the video was to raise awareness and to educate, meaning that by Facebook’s standards, it should not have been censored.
The video was reposted and Facebook apologised, claiming once again that the removal was a mistake.
A month earlier, in a serious blow to media freedom, Facebook removed an iconic photo from the Vietnam War. The photo is widespread and famous for revealing the atrocities of the war, especially on innocent people like children.
In a statement made following the removal of the photograph, Index on Censorship said: “Facebook should be a platform for … open debate, including the viewing of images and stories that some people may find offensive, is vital for democracy. Platforms such as Facebook can play an essential role in ensuring this.”
The newspaper whose post was censored posted a front-page open letter to Mark Zuckerberg stating that the CEO was abusing his power. After public outrage and the open letter, Facebook released a statement claiming they are “always looking to improve our policies to make sure they both promote free expression and keep our community safe”.
Facebook’s community standards claim they remove photos of sexual assault against minors but don’t mention historical photos or those which do not contain sexual assault.
The young woman shown in the photo, who now lives in Canada, released her own statement saying: “I’m saddened by those who would focus on the nudity in the historic picture rather than the powerful message it conveys. I fully support the documentary image taken by Nick Ut as a moment of truth that capture the horror of war and its effects on innocent victims.”[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_basic_grid post_type=”post” max_items=”4″ element_width=”6″ grid_id=”vc_gid:1509981254255-452e74e2-3762-2″ taxonomies=”1721″][/vc_column][/vc_row]
The Laotian president, Choummaly Sayasone, made a five day official visit to France in October 2013 — the first such visit in 60 years. (Photo: Serge Mouraret / Demotix)
When travellers and writers talk about Laos, they mention how peaceful it is, and how Buddhist. The people, says Lonely Planet, are some of the most chilled out in the world. People forget, as they rarely do with Vietnam or China, that it is still a communist state.
The Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP) has absolute control over the press and civil society. Professor Martin Stuart-Fox, a Laos expert with the University of Queensland, has written widely on the country’s history and government and has said that the party is little more than a crony scheme, with many of those in power now descended from the old Lao aristocracy. It is necessary to have a powerful patron, almost always in the party or closely connected to it, for success. Information is difficult to get hold of and even local journalists, who often have close ties to the government, complain publicly, if respectfully, about the impenetrability of government departments.
Freedom House writes: “Press freedom in Laos remains highly restricted. Despite advances in telecommunications infrastructure, government control of all print and broadcast news prevents the development of a vibrant, independent press.”
These media restrictions are part of a wider pattern of suppression of information, lack of transparency in business dealings, prevention of protests and cultural and religious oversight by the government and party.
However the most noticeable event of the past 18 months has been the disappearance of Sombath Somphone. At the end of 2012 the Lao development expert went missing and many of his colleagues quietly believe the government may be responsible. Little but the bare facts have been written in the local, state-owned press.
Sombath was, according to reports, well respected by both the local and international communities and hardly an anti-government firebrand. He did, however, jointly give a presentation in late 2012 to the ASEAN-Europe People‘s Forum held in Vientiane with the United Nations Development Program. A western aid source told Index on Censorship: “In my opinion — one shared by many others as well –Sombath’s statement at the AEPF was the last straw for the government. He was particularly concerned with forced resettlement, directly linked to government land grabs to provide natural resources to Chinese companies [that are] full of bribes.” The source says since Sombath disappeared any attempts at criticism of government policy, either by the press or organisations “have taken a quantum leap backwards and are currently frozen”.
The World Trade Organisation accession of last year appears not to have much of an effect in promoting a freer or transparent climate. Though the global trade body did make the right noises little concrete action was taken.
This is in contrast to Vietnam’s 2007 WTO accession. In the lead up, the Vietnamese government made public attempts at allowing more freedom of press and speech and open criticism of government policies. Once it became the 150th member crackdowns began again. A small measure of transparency in regards to the business climate has been seemingly taken in Laos.
The LPRP has been in power since 1975. Agricultural reforms began in 1978 and economic reform in 1986, known as the New Economic Mechanism, which began its transition to a more market-based economy. Vietnam instituted its own doi moi, or renovation, policy the same year.
Laos has, in the past 15 years, pursued a policy of economic growth and regional and global integration with an eye toward world affairs. Joining ASEAN in 1997 was a step forward for the small nation, though the spillover Asian financial crisis engendered a certain skepticism among leaders of the manifold benefits of globalisation.
Many smaller nations racing towards development, especially those with sometimes problematic political systems, usually host an event that is as something of a “coming out party”. Vientiane’s hosting of the 2009 Southeast Asia Games was Laos’. Longtime Asia journalist Bertil Lintner pointed out in the Yale Global Review, that though the SEA Games may not have been compelling for much of the globe they are an important regional sporting competition. Chinese and Vietnamese donors and investment built much of the needed infrastructure, such as stadiums.
Despite the rapid development and a “strong” growth outlook for 2013 – 2014, according to Euromonitor, the country still struggles under Least Developed Nation status and poverty rates are high outside the cities while access to services remains low, as do literacy rates.
Unemployment is officially at 2.6 percent of the population, but it is widely believed to be far higher and according to market research and intelligence firm Euromonitor there will be twice as many job entrants as positions for them to fill. Labour export is favoured by the government to partially solve the issue and earn currency. The poverty rate has dropped in recent years and the government’s plan has been to halve it by 2015.
Freedom of the press?
“The Ministry of Information and Culture controls all media in Laos. There is no freedom of the press and no legal protection for Lao journalists who fail to reflect the party line. Most Lao journalists are actually party members attached to the MI,” Stuart-Fox wrote for Freedom House in 2012.
“Laos is the region’s black hole for news…. Because there is no functioning independent media, there are few overt press freedom violations,” Shawn Crispin of the Committee to Protect Journalists told Index. “No local reporting is allowed whatsoever on government corruption, official abuses or factional divisions inside the ruling communist Lao Revolutionary People’s Party. These are all pervasive in Laos, but you’d never know it reading local papers on watching local TV.”
Laos enshrines freedom of speech in its constitution, written in 1991, while ensuring harsh penalties in its penal code that can easily be applied to journalists, or bloggers — though bloggers are few and generally timid. Slandering the state, distorting party and state policies, inciting disorder or propagating information or opinions that weaken the state can all be prosecuted. The vague wording means many things can, if deemed necessary, fall under this ambit.
The English language Vientiane Times largely functions as a platform for photographs of handshakes, ribbon cuttings and deeply earnest affirmations of the great friendship between Laos and whichever national delegation dropped off in the capital on its Southeast Asia tour. It is essentially a showcase organ for what the government wishes foreigners to see, and understand, about modern Laos however its often rather old-fashioned, orthodox rhetoric and complete dearth of anything interesting do not ensure an avid readership.
“The Vietnamese media is much more open, skilled, and sophisticated than the Lao media. And the Lao media are dominated by self-censorship,” a senior Lao source from Radio Free Asia said in an email to Index. “Within limits some publications in Vietnam do try to do investigative journalism. You simply won’t find that in Laos.” The source pointed out that a query on the large scale illegal logging with logs going to Vietnam might not yield much past government authority saying that the government tries to protect the environment.
The 2008 media law is theoretically more friendly to the media and transparency — journalists are guaranteed the right to seek and publish information and to access to public records — there is in practice not much more freedom. The government allows a small measure of criticism of bureaucracy or government actions but reporters have not fully tried to push barriers until they push back. Self censorship is endemic and might be one reason why reporters do not languish in prison as they do in Vietnam or China. Stories on culture and social ills are permitted to a degree, but rigorous investigation of, for example, detainment in rehabilitation centres for all drug users might be going too far.
There is also the tricky situation that government bodies rarely respond to media requests and little information is provided to reporters, though a couple of departments do apparently have a communications department. The information that is provided is expected to be used to further the government’s message and aims.
“There is an endemic culture within our society where people are wary of the news media, and adequate protection is not granted to those willing to speak out on sensitive topics. As such, accessing information is not easy, which makes presenting it even harder”, said a Vientiane Times report quoted by a Southeast Asia Press Association report from 2012.
News on HMong returning refugees, hydro plants, land clearance and illegal logging — some of the most contentious issues in the country — do not make it into the news often. Many of the issues of concern to Lao people can thus remain localised either with those directly affected or educated urban dwellers able to afford access to foreign news sources. It does not appear activist groups have mass organised online yet. Those with access to Thai media may be able to learn more — the government does not block the Thai channels whose broadcasts make it into border areas.
There have been some moves towards private media ownership, although some sources have remarked the industry is too small and rewards too low at this point for anything but a nascent media industry. “There have been a few attempts to launch more trendy, lifestyle magazines, but most have been short lived, I suspect because the relatively small market size for this does not make it economically viable,” said one anonymous source.
There are really no permanent foreign news bureaus in Laos. Though Voice of Vietnam opened a bureau in 2010 and both Radio France International and China Radio International have broadcast from Laos. It should be noted that the 2008 media law does allow foreign news but Stuart-Fox argues that the hoops foreign papers must jump through are too difficult for it to be worth their while.
Problems of censorship go beyond no free press: even if a savvy reporter could persuade an editor to run stories on corruption finding any hard data would be difficult. Party members do not have to disclose their holdings or assets meaning their ownership of firms in Laos is hard to track down. A lack of data cannot be blamed simply on wilful or mendacious opacity; there is not always the capacity for nation-wide gathering and management of statistics.
It is also worth noting, as Stuart-Fox has, that Laos historically has a lower level of literacy and literary traditions than Vietnam. Policy documents often remain unread (many laws have been drafted with foreign help but few ranking civil servants remain au fait with them) and the fierce, bookish debate of intellectuals can be less prevalent in Laos than its Confucian neighbours. On the upside, Lao officials are sometimes, he says, more amenable to friendly informal chats over a Beer Lao or two.
Laos has some two dozen newspapers and almost twice as many radio stations–useful when one considers how remote some communities are. There has been investment into telecommunications infrastructure which better connects Laos to the ASEAN region.
The Southeast Asia Press Alliance wrote in 2012: “The launching of the country’s stock market towards the end of 2010 should be seen as a welcome step towards greater access to information inside this secluded communist regime as foreign investors need a more transparent government and greater access to its policies on social and economic development.” The World Bank ranked Laos at 159 out of 189 nations for ease of doing business, up from 163 the previous year.
Not all censorship is political. Authorities and the older generation worry about the cultural shifts brought about by rapid modernisation and integration with the wider world. A decade ago young people believed Western influences were “bad” according to a survey published in a 2000 book — Laos at the Crossroads — by authors Vatthana Pholsena and Ruth Banomyong. Today, there are still moves by the government toward modesty and a “Lao” way of being that encompasses tradition and religion. Women still largely wear sins — an embroidered sarong, more or less — and until not so long ago long hair on young men was frowned upon or outright illegal — along with earrings or “eccentric clothes”. The same Vientiane Post article quoted also noted that while Western music was technically illegal in nightclubs it could be permissible provided it made up no more than 20 per cent of the music content of the venue, which had to be well-lit to prevent “indecent acts”. However Vientiane’s nightclubs seem to play largely western music or at least the bland, synth-heavy electronica found across the world.
Laos is Buddhist, which the government recognises and publicly embraces. In fact, it even went so far as to argue, on more than one occasion, that Marxism and Buddhism are not so much mutually exclusive as eminently compatible. The Sangha, the Buddhist clergy, was asked as early as 1975 to study Marxism and be a kind of emissary or teacher of the doctrine especially to those in the countryside. Regimes in Southeast Asia reasserting legitimacy by linking themselves with the nation’s dominant religion is not new and serves a useful dual purpose: They are linked to something deeply esteemed by the people but also more able to control what could otherwise be a powerful dissenting force.
Christians face more persecution on the whole. Hmong Protestant Christians — as opposed to Catholic groups — possibly the more so. The Hmong were co-opted by US forces during the Secret War when the United States undertook a covert bombing of the nation to disrupt the supply chains operating through the Ho Chi Minh Trail that assisted Vietnamese forces.
It is important also to understand that though many Hmong face difficulties in the nation and are discriminated against, it is largely the Christian Hmong who face the worst persecution, similar to Central Highlands Protestants in Vietnam, who are loosely grouped under the umbrella term Degar. Both of these cases stem from involvement with and support of US forces during wartime. Lao Hmong in the United States make up a reasonable sized diaspora and the older generation not only rails against the communist government but enjoys support from US veteran’s advocate group the CPPP — which erroneously reported the murder of 72 Hmong by Vietnamese-trained Lao forces in 2011. Former leader, the late Vang Pao, went so far to plan a coup from his home in California. Many Hmong who fled to Thailand during the war years and remained in limbo were forcibly repatriated a few years ago.
According to Stuart-Fox, Hmong who have maintained their traditional animist beliefs or became party-friendly communists do not suffer the same discrimination or persecution. One woman even made it into the Politburo.
Laos’ multitudinous ethnic minorities also follow many religions and the government officially allows this and officially advocates religious freedom. However this only goes so far as preserving or allowing “good” practices. Religious ceremonies considered backward have been suppressed where possible — like slaughter of animals in rituals. “Superstition” is not kindly looked upon.
Internet access is far lower than any of Laos’ neighbours with only 9 percent using it in 2011. More recent data suggests an expansion: In 2012 there were 400,000 Facebook users in Laos; up from 60,000 in 2011 in a population of over 6.5 million.
Internet use is growing in Laos but still remains confined to larger cities and towns. A report from academic Warren Mayes guesstimated there were some 50-60 internet cafes in Vientiane in 2006. He noted then online life was growing fast for young people and their interactions with the wider Lao diaspora.
Laos may yet crackdown on Facebook. Last year the communications ministry was to introduce internet regulations to allow official monitoring of the internet — though sources suggest it is already very much unofficially monitored. The director general mentioned to the Vientiane Times information on Facebook circulating regarding a crashed Lao Airlines plane was not “helpful”.
The state controls all internet service providers, and there are some reports that the government sporadically blocks web activity. “The government’s technical ability to monitor the internet is limited, though concerns remain that Laos is looking to adopt the censorship policies and technologies of its neighbors, Vietnam and China,” says Freedom House.
Much of Vietnam’s surveillance ability is already sourced from western companies such as Finn Fisher, Verint and Silver Bullet, rather than homegrown. Sources have previously told Index that Chinese private companies are more likely to assist in surveillance than the government proper; however many including the CPJ strongly suspect Chinese government involvement.
One problem for Laos is that Lao language and alphabet programs have been slow to catch up, though young people do use a phonetic, romanised script known as pasa karaoke.
Deputy Minister of Post and Telecommunications, Thansamay Kommasith, told the Vientiane Times that an “official” Lao script program was being developed, saying: “This is for unity and prosperity, using the official Lao language in those technologies for the future development of IT in Laos as well as to develop the country through them.” There are already unofficial ones being used. Vietnamese military-owned telco Viettel is to assist in the development, according to local news stories. The telco was previously linked to malware attacks within Vietnam.
Laos has plans to launch its own communications satellite. Minister of Post and Telecommunication, Hiem Phommachanh, said at a “groundbreaking ceremony” the satellite would contribute to the nation’s socio-economic development. The $250 million (£147 million) satellite will be funded by China, though Laos will hold a 30 per cent share.
Formerly message boards like Laoupdate and Laosmiles have been popular with both the younger diaspora and native Lao. The former site shut down, some suggest thanks to government pressure. The latter censored posts, explaining earnestly to the outraged users that it was to avoid trouble.
The Electronic Freedom Frontier has reported that Laos is on the Global Online Freedom Act’s blacklist, which was passed by a US House sub-committee, meaning US companies are prohibited from selling surveillance gear to repressive regimes. The EFF called it “an important step toward protecting human rights and free expression online”. US companies have sold such technology in the past to Vietnam.
Just as Laos has laws which can govern the press or activists, it has also specified similar acts in its internet laws. Article 15 (points 6 and 7) states people must “Not to use communication to defeat national stability, peace, socio-economic or cultural development of the country”; “7. Not to use the telecommunication system to defame persons or organisations.”
Staying friendly with the neighbours
Laos, neighbour to Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, China and Burma, has long been called land-locked for its lack of access to any sea. With so many roads being built, Chinese railway funding and Laos’ own ambition to turn itself into a goods transport corridor it’s now more often called “land-linked”. But Laos has been balancing its neighbours and acting as either a buffer or corridor for a long time.
Historically beset from three sides by China, Vietnam and Thailand the nation has learned how to balance its neighbours’ needs and demands while paying expected tribute and playing them off against one another. Laos shares religion, a measure of culture and language with Thailand, as well as strong cross-border trade and cultural products like television shows and popular music. China and Vietnam have more invested both politically and economically. China’s projects and influence are seen more in the north of the nation; Vietnam in the south.
While China cooperates with the party and offers no criticism, Vietnam has more invested in the party. Both Professor Carl Thayer of the Australian Defence Force Academy and Stuart-Fox say that Vietnam has a greater interest in the political status quo in Laos being maintained. A change in regime could have repercussions for Hanoi. Vietnam has traditionally offered more political guidance and military assistance. The two nations also have a shared wartime history. But it has been Chinese involvement in Laos that has prompted some of the few public demonstrations, though protests over land reclamation often related to dams are also growing.
For example, the New City Development would have involved 50,000 Chinese workers to build the stadium for the 2009 SEA Games. It was met with public opposition and even members of the largely party-member legislative National Assembly disapproved. There are also many towns, especially in the north, with large Chinese populations, Chinese markets and even signage in Chinese. Some in Laos have publicly wondered why, for example, Chinese workers must be imported for Chinese building projects when Laos has its own workers available.
China exerts political influence by virtue of not trying to. Unlike western aid, packages from China are not conditional upon human rights. China has a policy of non-intervention, though this is true for all nations it aids and invests in; there has been criticism of its similar policies in Africa. The two nations raised their bilateral relations to a comprehensive strategic partnership in 2009. Chinese development aid from 1997 to 2007 was estimated at $280 million and the nation provided another $330 million from 1998 – 2001, according to Thayer.
The problems already present in Laos such as lack of transparency, corruption and environmental degradation have been raised as issues in regard to Chinese investment also by western aid agencies and NGOs and concerned Lao. At the same time there are worries about Chinese goods pushing out locally-made goods.
The ongoing non-investigation
Writing in the Asia Times in February, more than a year after Somphone went missing, his wife Shui Meng Ng pointed out that his disappearance has barely been mentioned in the local press and certainly no words of distemper from the foreign press have made it into local news. Questions on his whereabouts have been met with official blandness: “We have found nothing yet, but the relevant authorities are still doing their best to investigate the case.”
The European Parliament expressed grave concern, and many foreign aid groups and private NGOs have also tried to put pressure to bear on the government to explain or transparently investigate the man’s disappearance. The government, it seems, does not care. “Tough words,” from these groups she writes “have not been followed by equally tough actions.” She described questions by resident or visiting dignitaries as an “irritation” to local officials but nothing more.“Within Lao officialdom, no one wants to hear his name, no one wants to be reminded of his disappearance, and no one dares to talk openly about him.”
Given few in Laos read much aside from the official papers it is easy enough to whitewash his disappearance. Another source speaking to Index suggested a certain laissez-faire attitude even among some local, educated aid workers, characterised with: “Well, he should have known what might happen to him for speaking up so much.”
Ng makes a useful point: The nation’s steadfast drive to greater international and regional roles is, seemingly, belied by its refusal to even acknowledge what has gone wrong, or why.
Human rights and freedom of speech are not, despite what we would often like to believe, essential for a well respected global role. But for small, hitherto forgotten and least developed nations, a respect for international norms helps ease notions of “backwardness”.
In January, Index summarised the U.S. State Department’s “Countries of Particular Concern” — those that severely violate religious freedom rights within their borders. This list has remained static since 2006 and includes Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Uzbekistan. These countries not only suppress religious expression, they systematically torture and detain people who cross political and social red lines around faith.
Today the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), an independent watchdog panel created by Congress to review international religious freedom conditions, released its 15th annual report recommending that the State Department double its list of worst offenders to include Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Vietnam and Syria.
Here’s a roundup of the systematic, ongoing and egregious religious freedom violations unfolding in each.
The promise of religious freedom that came with a revised constitution and ousted Islamist president last year has yet to transpire. An increasing number of dissident Sunnis, Coptic Christians, Shiite Muslims, atheists and other religious minorities are being arrested for “ridiculing or insulting heavenly religions or inciting sectarian strife” under the country’s blasphemy law. Attacks against these groups are seldom investigated. Freedom of belief is theoretically “absolute” in the new constitution approved in January, but only for Muslims, Christians and Jews. Baha’is are considered apostates, denied state identity cards and banned from engaging in public religious activities, as are Jehovah’s Witnesses. Egyptian courts sentenced 529 Islamist supporters to death in March and another 683 in April, though most of the March sentences have been commuted to life in prison. Courts also recently upheld the five-year prison sentence of writer Karam Saber, who allegedly committed blasphemy in his work.
Iraq’s constitution guarantees religious freedom, but the government has largely failed to prevent religiously-motivated sectarian attacks. About two-thirds of Iraqi residents identify as Shiite and one-third as Sunni. Christians, Yezidis, Sabean-Mandaeans and other faith groups are dwindling as these minorities and atheists flee the country amid discrimination, persecution and fear. Baha’is, long considered apostates, are banned, as are followers of Wahhabism. Sunni-Shia tensions have been exacerbated recently by the crisis in neighboring Syria and extremist attacks against religious pilgrims on religious holidays. A proposed personal status law favoring Shiism is expected to deepen divisions if passed and has been heavily criticized for allowing girls to marry as young as nine.
Nigeria is roughly divided north-south between Islam and Christianity with a sprinkling of indigenous faiths throughout. Sectarian tensions along these geographic lines are further complicated by ethnic, political and economic divisions. Laws in Nigeria protect religious freedom, but rule of law is severely lacking. As a result, the government has failed to stop Islamist group Boko Haram from terrorizing and methodically slaughtering Christians and Muslim critics. An estimated 16,000 people have been killed and many houses of worship destroyed in the past 15 years as a result of violence between Christians and Muslims. The vast majority of these crimes have gone unpunished. Christians in Muslim-majority northern states regularly complain of discrimination in the spheres of education, employment, land ownership and media.
Pakistan’s record on religious freedom is dismal. Harsh anti-blasphemy laws are regularly evoked to settle personal and communal scores. Although no one has been executed for blasphemy in the past 25 years, dozens charged with the crime have fallen victim to vigilantism with impunity. Violent extremists from among Pakistan’s Taliban and Sunni Muslim majority regularly target the country’s many religious minorities, which include Shiites, Sufis, Christians, Hindus, Zoroastrians, Sikhs, Buddhists and Baha’is. Ahmadis are considered heretics and are prevented from identifying as Muslim, as the case of British Ahmadi Masud Ahmad made all too clear in recent months. Ahmadis are politically disenfranchised and Hindu marriages are not state-recognized. Laws must be consistent with Islam, the state religion, and freedom of expression is constitutionally “subject to any reasonable restrictions imposed by law in the interest of the glory of Islam,” fostering a culture of self-censorship.
Religious freedom has rapidly deteriorated since Tajikistan’s 2009 religion law severely curtailed free exercise. Muslims, who represent 90 percent of the population, are heavily monitored and restricted in terms of education, dress, pilgrimage participation, imam selection and sermon content. All religious groups must register with the government. Proselytizing and private religious education are forbidden, minors are banned from participating in most religious activities and Muslim women face many restrictions on communal worship. Jehovah’s Witnesses have been banned from the country since 2007 for their conscientious objection to military service, as have several other religious groups. Hundreds of unregistered mosques have been closed in recent years, and “inappropriate” religious texts are regularly confiscated.
The religious freedom situation in Turkmenistan is similar to that of Tajikistan but worse due to the country’s extraordinary political isolation and government repression. Turkmenistan’s constitution guarantees religious freedom, but many laws, most notably the 2003 religion law, contradict these provisions. All religious organizations must register with the government and remain subject to raids and harassment even if approved. Shiite Muslim groups, Protestant groups and Jehovah’s Witnesses have all had their registration applications denied in recent years. Private worship is forbidden and foreign travel for pilgrimages and religious education are greatly restricted. The government hires and fires clergy, censors religious texts, and fines and imprisons believers for their convictions.
Vietnam’s government uses vague national security laws to suppress religious freedom and freedom of expression as a means of maintaining its authority and control. A 2005 decree warns that “abuse” of religious freedom “to undermine the country’s peace, independence, and unity” is illegal and that religious activities must not “negatively affect the cultural traditions of the nation.” Religious diversity is high in Vietnam, with half the population claiming some form of Buddhism and the rest identifying as Catholic, Hoa Hao, Cao Dai, Protestant, Muslim or with other small faith and non-religious communities. Religious groups that register with the government are allowed to grow but are closely monitored by specialized police forces, who employ violence and intimidation to repress unregistered groups.
The ongoing Syrian crisis is now being fought along sectarian lines, greatly diminishing religious freedom in the country. President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, aligned with Hezbollah and Shabiha, have targeted Syria’s majority-Sunni Muslim population with religiously-divisive rhetoric and attacks. Extremist groups on the other side, including al-Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), have targeted Christians and Alawites in their fight for an Islamic state devoid of religious tolerance or diversity. Many Syrians choose their allegiances based on their families’ faith in order to survive. It’s important to note that all human rights, not just religious freedom, are suffering in Syria and in neighboring refugee camps. In quieter times, proselytizing, conversion from Islam and some interfaith marriages are restricted, and all religious groups must officially register with the government.
The 30 month prison sentence for Vietnamese human rights lawyer and blogger, Le Quoc Quan, was today upheld by a Hanoi appeals court. Quan, who has frequently blogged about human rights violations by the government, was convicted in October 2013 on tax evasion charges. He has been arbitrarily detained since December 2012. A crowd of hundreds wearing t-shirts in support of Quan were present outside the court, while a European Union delegation, representatives from the United States and Canada and a small group of journalists were present at the trial. This is just the latest move in the Vietnamese authorities’ ongoing attack on dissent, free speech, free press and a free internet.
If you need to communicate with someone the Vietnamese government is interested in keeping an eye, it is always been useful to be careful. Phone conversations can be listened to. Meetings at houses could be watched. Protests are invariably filmed by government operatives. If you were going to, say, chat via Gmail’s chat function it should be switched to “off the record” to prevent a copy of the discussion being archived. Some unlucky people have seen their blog posts traced to the internet cafe they’ve later been arrested at. If you are a dissident you won’t be the only one the police are interested in; they’ll talk to your family, friends and employers, too. The latter they may ask to dismiss you.
It is Vietnam Ministry of Public Security conducts this surveillance work, while the Ministry of Information and Culture drafts many of the laws regarding internet usage and “abuse”. And it is most likely a unit within the MPS that is responsible for these, and earlier, malware attacks.
Much of the surveillance and intimidation is hardly new; similar operations took place during the Terror in the USSR. In fact, the CIA has compared the MPS with Russia’s KGB. The KGB of comrade days, however, never had to deal with the vastness of the internet. The government owns every newspaper and printing press in the country, but it has few serious servers, making control of the internet difficult. It does not stop them from trying.
In January the Associated Press in Vietnam reported on malware attacks against one of its journalists, against an American-Vietnamese blogger and against the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). These are certainly not the first of their kind but may have been the first directed against those on foreign shores. The private correspondence of Vietnamese-American blogger Ngoc Tu was posted on her blog after someone — supposed, but not verified to be the Vietnamese government — sent her an email with a link that installed malware and key logging software giving the sender access to her password and her email account. The Associated Press reporter was a sent an email purportedly from Human Rights Watch with a link to a ‘white paper’ on human rights.
Vietnam’s internet history: Enthusiasm and repression
Vietnam’s relationship with the internet has not been simple. The government has always been enthusiastic about the internet and the wholesale benefits it could, and has, brought to the nation. Though classified as an “enemy of the internet” by Reporters Without Borders for its blocking of websites and arrests of bloggers and journalists, Vietnam’s communist government has done an awful lot to ensure good internet access.
But the country’s vibrant internet culture is a direct result of government guidance and intervention. Vietnam has long valued literacy and learning and according to Professor Carlyle Thayer at the Australian Defence Force Academy, the government believed that the “knowledge era” was key to the nation’s economic development. The internet helped to provide that and greater world integration, something they have been increasingly keen for since Doi Moi in 1986 when the country began a period of economic renovation, shunning its former isolationist politics.
Twenty years ago the Vietnam Communist Party (CPV) noted three dangers facing the country: corruption, deviation from the socialist path and falling behind. The internet was seen a perfect way to engage more with the world. A 2011 report by market research firm Cimigo, headquartered in Ho Chi Minh City, says: “Vietnam has seen a more rapid growth of the internet over the last few years than most other countries in the region and is one of the fastest growing internet countries in the world… Since the year 2000, the number of internet users in Vietnam has multiplied by about 120.”
However, the government misjudged, believing control to be easy, and circumventing its block beyond the ken of its citizens.
Putting the genie back in the bottle
There are three main laws bloggers, activists and others the state dislikes are charged under. Criminal Code Article 88 relates to “conducting propaganda against the state”. This is the one most often used — both draconian and helpfully vague. Then there is Article 258, relating to “abusing democratic freedoms”, and Article 79 covering “activities aimed overthrowing the Communist Party of Vietnam and People’s Socialist Republic of Vietnam”.
However there have also been numerous internet laws drafted, largely aimed at keeping citizens’ net activities restricted to useful research or harmless entertainment. An August 2001 law imposed “stringent” controls and required net cafe owners to report breaches to relevant authorities and to collect ID from their users. An August 2005 law criminalised using the internet to oppose or destabilise the state, security, economy or social order, infringe on the rights of organisations or individuals, or mess around with Domain Name System (DNS) settings — something many Facebook users started doing in 2009. In October 2007 the Ministry of Information and Culture issued a decision requiring all businesses to obtain a license before setting up a website. This has stymied growth in some ways, as it is only now that businesses are as present online as individuals.
In August 2008 Decree 97 made it illegal to “abuse” the internet to oppose the government. What got more attention was Circular 7, restricting bloggers to cover only personal, not political, topics. At the time blogging was a favoured pastime in Vietnam, Yahoo! 360 the favoured platform. Interest in blogging and blogs in general has since waned significantly. According to Cimigo, in 2009 40 per cent of internet users visited blogs and 20 per cent blogged themselves. By 2011 those numbers had halved as people increasingly moved to social media sites like Facebook.
It was the quiet block of Facebook in 2009 that caught the world’s attention. The government never mentioned a ban publicly though a purported scan of instructions to ISPs to block the site did rounds online. As the government never said much, Vietnam’s legion of Facebook users simply muttered something about “technical problems” as they “fixed” the DNS settings to access the site.
What led to the Facebook block was the organising between previously disparate groups against Chinese-run bauxite mines in the Central Highlands of Vietnam — an already ecologically and politically sensitive area. Catholics, activists, environmentalists and anti-China activists all united via Facebook to protest the mines. In 2010 the government tried to launch its own social networking site (which led to headlines such as ‘In Communist Vietnam, State Friends You’), go.vn, where users had to provide their full names and ID card details, but could also “friend” communist luminaries. The Minister for Culture and Information Le Doan Hop praised the site’s usefulness for young people and promotion of “culture, values and benefits”.
In 2010 came a decision requiring all public hotels to install Green Dam monitoring software. Theoretically it allowed the government to see what was being looked at, possibly by whom and take appropriate steps. In fact decision 15/2010/QD-UBND was something of a paper tiger; many pointed out how such a piecemeal and scattershot approach would have limited utility and could be wholly circumvented by any serious activist, though rights organisations took the appropriate potshots as a matter of course.
In 2010 a ban was put in place, ostensibly on all online gaming between 10pm and 6am, to combat gaming addiction. However, it was never fully possible to enforce thanks to most popular games being hosted by overseas servers.
The most recent attempts at curbing net use via legislation has been Decree-Law 72 on Management of the internet which formally came into effect in September 2013. Like many laws it is confusing and vague enough to be useful for any enthusiastic government prosecutor. Among other things it banned the sharing of news online. Or, rather, it banned the aggregation of news onto websites. The government took the time to publicly respond to the flurry of foreign concern and the head of the Ministry of Information and Culture’s Online Information Section protested to Reuters that the law did not violate any of Vietnam’s human rights commitments. “We will never ban people from sharing information or linking news from websites,” he said, arguing it had been misinterpreted.
There has been talk that Decree 72 was also designed to protect intellectual property, as violations have long been problematic and go far beyond dollar copies of new Hollywood films on DVD. One of the things 72 supposedly sought to do was prevent websites re-posting news from its original source with no attribution and thus make things easier for news sites whilst also laying groundwork for membership of the Trans Pacific Partnership in regards to intellectual property protection.
The more interesting requirement was that ISPs locate servers, or at least one, within Vietnam and deliver information on users to the government, rather as internet cafes have been required to do. They were also required to take down anything contravening laws. However Vietnam’s most trafficked sites do not have servers within Vietnam and with such new laws do not entirely see the point, either. Indeed there are not many substantial servers located there at all, and bloggers who fear the law usually host their blogs overseas in any case. Should the government instruct local ISPs to block say, Google, many will simply respond again to “technical difficulties” by readjusting their settings.
Peaceful evolution, draconian repression
The threat of peaceful and not so peaceful evolution hangs heavily over the heads of those in power in Hanoi.
Vietnam is regularly excoriated for its human rights record which generally means the way the nation locks up its dissidents, bloggers, religious leaders. Even US President Barack Obama made mention of blogger Dieu Cay’s ongoing detention, ostensibly for tax reasons.
According to Human Rights Watch there were at least 63 political prisoners convicted in Vietnam last year. And yet, as Professor Thayer said in a 2011 paper: “Great effort is put into monitoring, controlling and restricting Internet usage. The enormity of resources devoted for these purposes contrasts with the comparatively small number of political activists, religious leaders, and bloggers who have been arrested, tried and sentenced to prison.”
Though the numbers have increased since the above was written there is still little mass organising in this area, and large scale protests tend to be over more concrete issues: workers’ rights and wages or land grabs. However those considered potentially subversive are closely monitored, watched by both a physical presence and an online one.
Actual harassment of bloggers and their families has been common over the years. Most famously, mother of Vietnamese blogger Ta Phong Tan set herself on fire outside the Bac Lieu People‘s Committee building in the Mekong Delta in July 2012, in protest at the way her daughter had been treated.
Within the MPS are units that monitor all forms of communication and there are records of the country purchasing more complicated surveillance equipment. According to the same 2011 paper by Professor Thayer, Vietnam by 2002 had the Verint call monitoring system. Verint, a US company, supplies over 150 nations and 10,000 organisations with varied forms of security and monitoring equipment.
China in the 1990s also offered technical assistance to “monitor internal threats to national security” to the General Department II. The military also collects intelligence related to national security and with attention paid to those, abroad or within Vietnam, who “plot or engage in activities aimed at threatening or opposing the Communist Party of Vietnam or the Socialist Republic of Vietnam”.
General Department II not only, arguably, watched dissidents but also tapped senior party officials in an incident of usually opaque factionalism that later came to light.
There have been many attacks against varied blogs and websites; 16 starting in 2009 and intensifying in April of the next year. Varied activists came under fire: Catholics discussing land issues — there have been ongoing spats between Catholics and the state over land grabs — as well as environmentalists and political agitators. Sites allied to the anti-bauxite movement were also hit. IP addresses were allegedly traced back to within Vietnam and to addresses connected to the military. The attacks, verified by McAfee and Google, were botnet attacks where spyware hid in seemingly innocuous Vietnamese language keystroke software (though a Romanised alphabet Vietnamese has 29 letters and many diacritics). Neel Mehta, a security expert with Google, wrote in a blog post that: “While the malware itself was not especially sophisticated, it has nonetheless been used for damaging purposes.”
Vietnam joining the “technology race”?
That Vietnam has taken up the internet quickly and with great passion is beyond dispute but there are still gaps in the industry. Everyone may be using Google but few local businesses are profiting from the web and mobile boom.
Bryan Pelz, an IT developer, says there is “no means for direct monetization”.
“The banking industry and regulatory environment hasn’t taken strong steps to lay the groundwork for easy online payments. Essentially nobody has credit cards. If you’re building a website and hope to charge users or make a living off of advertising, it’s a tough road in Vietnam.”
And despite talented hackers and software engineers — Flappy Bird was designed by a Vietnamese engineer — with experience and skill comparable to the rest of Asia, software isn’t considered a hugely lucrative field, according to Pelz.
Of those aged 15 – 24, according to Cimigo, 95 per cent are online and spend over two hours each day on the web, via internet cafe, desktop or phone. Ninety five per cent use it for news. Google remains the top rated site in Vietnam, followed by local entertainment hub Zing. News sites Dan Tri and Tuoi Tre also feature, as does Yahoo!, Facebook and YouTube.
Last year a Russian-backed challenger to Google called Coc Coc (knock knock) opened shop. It has aimed to take some of Google’s 97 per cent market share, the reasoning being that Google had no offices in Vietnam and did not have algorithms well written enough to understand Vietnamese well. Unlike other startups it was backed with serious investment and a staff of over 300, according to the AP.
A recent article in The Atlantic reported that Vietnam’s Ministry of Science and Technology has sponsored something called the Silicon Valley Project which aims to push Vietnam to be more than a simple producer of electronic parts (Intel has a 1 billion USD plant in the country) to a tech powerhouse with a strong startup industry and innovative firms. The recent success of Flappy Bird — one of the most downloaded apps ever — is seen as evidence of Vietnam’s larger potential.
Indeed the Silicon Valley Project’s mission statement is not dissimilar to the Communist Party’s mid-1990s ideas about the upcoming “knowledge era”: “This is the time for Vietnam to join in the technology race. Countries which fail to change with this technology-driven world will fall into a vicious cycle of backwardness and poverty.”
This government-backed and sanctioned creativity and entrepreneurship has been lauded, though it’s also been pointed out how it may rather clash with many of the internet restrictions set out in varied laws, such as Decree 72. Of course Vietnam’s ministries do not always march in-sync and what the Ministry of Information and Culture believes to be good may clash with a more pro-tech Ministry of Science and Technology.
The confirmation today that Le Quoc Quan is facing 30 months behind bars, does not bode well for the future of internet freedom in Vietnam.