A court in Vietnam Thursday sentenced an environmental campaigner to 20 years in jail for content posted to Facebook — marking a significant escalation in the government’s use of social media to crack down on free speech.
Le Dinh Luong, 53, was found guilty of attempting to overthrow the Communist government after a trial that lasted just five hours. The prosecutor claimed Luong was encouraging people to join the pro-democracy group Viet Tan, which the government labels a terrorist organization.
The charges were based on police investigations into Luong’s Facebook posts and organizing activity.
As well as marking the most severe sentence for national security crimes in Vietnam in many years, the case highlighted a significant shift in how the government is now targeting social media posts to suppress dissenting voices in the one-party state — and it could get much worse.
At the trial, the prosecution presented in detail the contents of Luong’s Facebook videos, comments and friends list as proof of sweeping national security crimes.
“Criminalizing peaceful activism and the use of Facebook is a violation of human rights and civil liberties [and is] a sign that the Vietnamese Communist Party is increasingly afraid of peaceful dissent,” Duy Hoang, a spokesman for the Viet Tan, told VICE News.
Human right organizations also hit out at the sentencing.
Amnesty International Director of Global Operations Clare Algar called the charges “patently unjust and politically motivated,” while Phil Robertson, the deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, called the decision “absolutely outrageous,” adding that “locking people up for simply exercising their rights isn’t working.”
Luong is a veteran activist, who has been campaigning since Vietnam’s border war with China in 1979. In recent years he has been conducting most of his activism on Facebook under the pen name Lo Ngoc.
Before he was arrested in 2017, Luong was focused on seeking compensation for farmers and fishermen impacted by the 2016 Formosa environmental disaster, which killed tons of fish along more than 120 miles of coastline.
Though Vietnam already has a dire human rights record relating to free speech, conditions for opposition groups could soon become very difficult.
A proposed new cybersecurity law would force all technology companies, such as Google, Twitter, and Facebook, to host their data inside the country — giving authorities much greater access to information about its citizens’ online activities.
And Luong’s case highlights that the government is already thinking about using this access.
His indictment stated: “Because the defendant Le Dinh Luong did not confess, and data servers of Facebook users are hosted overseas, the investigative body could not confirm the above allegations.” This suggests that if the data was hosted inside the country, the authorities would have tried to access Facebook’s servers.
The new law is still being finalized, but last month a group of 17 U.S. lawmakers urged Facebook, Google, and others to resist the proposed new rules.
“If the Vietnamese government is coercing your companies to aid and abet censorship, this is an issue of concern that needs to be raised diplomatically and at the highest levels,” the Congressional Vietnam Caucus said in the letter seen by VICE News.
Facebook has not commented on the proposed new legislation, but the Asia Internet Coalition, of which Facebook is a member, has criticized the proposed law, and said it is in discussions with the government to amend the bill before it comes into force on Jan. 1, 2019.
Storing data locally is a growing trend in countries across the globe. Nations such as China, Russia and Brazil already require at least some data to be stored locally, while governments in India, Indonesia, and South Korea are all considering implementing similar restrictions.
Cover image: Activist Le Dinh Luong listens to the court verdict in Nghe An province on August 16, 2018 after he was arrested in July last year when he was visiting a family of political prisoner. (VIETNAM NEWS AGENCY/AFP/Getty Images)