A Foreign Office minister has been criticised for failing to condemn a law that bans political criticism on the internet in Vietnam. The law came into force 24 hours before the minister, Mark Field, arrived in the country.

Field, the Asia and Pacific minister, arrived in Vietnam Wednesday morning and sent out a tweet saying that media freedom would “help Vietnam realise its enormous potential”. He also said in an article in a Vietnamese newspaper that Britain would strengthen its relationship with the one-party communist state after Brexit.

On 1 January Vietnam introduced a cybersecurity law forcing internet providers to censor content deemed “toxic” by officials.

Field said the UK would strengthen its cooperation over Vietnamese cybersecurity. Nearly £5m in telecoms intercept equipment has been approved for sale to Vietnam since 2015. Campaigners against the arms industry say that action could be used to implement the crackdown on free speech.

Responding to Field’s comments, Phil Robertson, the deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said there was no substantive ground to believe Vietnam was prepared to end its crackdown on freedom of speech and civil society. Guardian Today: the headlines, the analysis, the debate - sent direct to you Read more

Robertson said: “The reality is, freedom of the press doesn’t exist in Vietnam because the government exerts effective control over all media outlets in the country. Up until now social media has been the outlet for free expression but the Vietnam government now has a draconian new law on cybersecurity which it can use as the hammer it needs to shut down online discussions and prosecute persons for what they say.

“The UK should publicly demand the revocation of the cybersecurity law and bend over backwards to ensure that no British government programmes or foreign investment do anything to facilitate the deepening crackdown.”

The Foreign Office said that Field raised the issue of media freedom including specific concerns about the new law with his Vietnamese counterparts on Wednesday, he also convened media freedom experts and activists to discuss the issue in Hanoi on the same day. They said the tweet was issued to accompany that event and said that the tweet said that Vietnam must have media freedoms in order to realise its enormous potential.

Despite the human rights situation in Vietnam, UK officials have cultivated the country as a customer for British military and security technology, approving £77m of sales of weapons and dual-use technologies since the Conservatives gained power in May 2015.

Vietnam was one of a number of countries invited to shop for surveillance equipment at a Home Office-sponsored arms fair in March 2017; months later civil servants from the Defence and Security Organisation, the government body that promotes arms manufacturers to overseas buyers, joined 14 different UK arms companies on a promotional tour of the country.

In November last year Vietnam’s deputy minister of national defence, Nguyen Chi Vinh, visited London for a joint “defence policy dialogue” summit co-chaired by Earl Howe, the minister of state for defence.

Among the most concerning exports, according to Andrew Smith, a spokesman for Campaign Against Arms Trade, was £5m worth of telecommunications interception equipment. “Interestingly one licence was refused in 2017, so the UK government clearly thinks there is some degree of risk, but has allowed 18 other licences since May 2015.” The most recent was in January 2018, Smith said, adding: “Surveillance equipment is particularly sensitive when put in the hands of authoritarian states.”

A government source said press freedom was among the issues Field intended to raise during private meetings with Vietnamese officials this week. A Foreign Office spokesperson also said that media freedom was a priority for Jeremy Hunt, the foreign secretary, which was why he was hosting an international conference on the issue in London this year.

By Damien Gayle - The Guardian - January 2, 2019


Vietnam criticised for 'totalitarian' law banning online criticism of government

Vietnam has introduced a new cybersecurity law, which criminalises criticising the government online and forces internet providers to give authorities’ user data when requested, sparking claims of a “totalitarian” crackdown on dissent.

The law, which mirrors China’s draconian internet rules, came into effect on 1 January and forces internet providers to censor content deemed “toxic” by the ruling communist government. Vietnam’s ministry of public security said it will tackle “hostile and reactionary forces”, but human rights groups said it was authorities’ latest method of silencing free speech.

The Vietnam government has intensified a crackdown on criticism since 2016, jailing dozens of dissidents. Spreading information deemed to be anti-government or anti-state online is now illegal in the country, as is using the internet to “post false information that could cause confusion and damage to socio-economic activities”.

Last week, the country’s Association of Journalists published a code of conduct banning reporters from posting information that could “run counter” to the state on social media. Daniel Bastard of Reporters Without Borders called the measures “a totalitarian model of information control”.

The government has asked Facebook and Google to open offices in Vietnam, and to agree to comply with the new censorship and user data rules. Hanoi claimed that Google has put steps in place to open a base in the country, although the search engine has not confirmed this. In response to the new law, Facebook said it would protect users’ rights and safety.

Phil Robertson, Human Rights Watch’s deputy Asia director, said the legislation was “the legal equivalent of a hammer to bash online critics, with overly broad provisions that can be easily used to classify almost any critical comment as criminal.”

He told the Guardian: “While it’s likely that activists who have previously spoken up against government abuses will be targeted first, the government’s longer-term plan is to bring the internet under the same draconian controls that affect print media, TV and radio. The government’s new year gift to its citizens is intensified fear about what they can say online, and uncertainty about what issues and statements will trigger arrests and prosecution.”

By Jamie Fullerton - The Guardian - January 2, 2019