SIM REPORT: SOUTHEAST ASIA, ISSUE 7

Vietnam: Business risks for media firms likely to rise amid economic fallout from pandemic, ahead of party congress

Washington on Wednesday (8 July) voiced concern after authorities in Vietnam sentenced a Facebook user who had expressed pro-democracy views on the platform to eight years in prison and urged Hanoi to permit freedom of expression. The user had supported democracy in Vietnam and shared news of pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong, according to international NGO Human Rights Watch. Vietnam has detained several prominent activists and journalists in recent months ahead of the government’s five-yearly party congress, which is scheduled for January 2021. Authorities in May and June 2020 arrested contributors to US state-backed news outlets Radio Free Asia and Voice of America over alleged ‘anti-state propaganda.’

The arrests of activists using Facebook to broadcast politically sensitive opinions poses significant business risks for other technology firms that Vietnamese authorities have successfully forced to comply with censorship laws. The government in 2017 demanded all companies doing business in the country to halt advertising on social media platforms including Facebook and YouTube until the platforms stop the publication of ‘toxic’ anti-government information. The two platforms comprise approximately 70 per cent of digital advertising spending in Vietnam. State efforts to influence censorship over such platforms intensified after Vietnam’s cybersecurity law came into effect at the beginning of 2019. In August 2019, Hanoi said that Facebook was limiting access to ‘increasing amounts’ of content in Vietnam, meeting 70 to 75 per cent of the government’s requests for restrictions on posts. Facebook’s operations in Vietnam are further complicated by the country’s Force 47 – a cyber unit created to fight against ‘wrong views,’ according to the military – which activists accuse of engaging in disinformation campaigns on the social media platform and exploiting it to attack dissidents and political opponents.

Facebook, Google and Twitter suspended data requests in Hong Kong following the passage of the territory’s national security law, over concerns around freedom of expression. The suspension contrasts with Facebook’s concessions in Vietnam, which highlight the precarious balancing act of complying with authorities to maintain access to a lucrative market – Vietnam boasts 58 million users – with political risks. Such risks are likely to increase in the medium-term as authorities are almost certain to clamp down further on free speech due to probable unrest arising from economic turmoil inflicted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The country’s labour ministry on 29 June said that millions of Vietnamese workers have lost their jobs, have had their hours decreased, and endured pay cuts. The unemployment rate is at its highest in five years, while the labour force participation rate has sunk to its lowest point in the last decade.

Risks are also likely to increase in the run-up to the 13th National Party Congress in January 2021. At the congress, the Communist Party is due to elect 19 members of the country’s Politburo, including its chair of national assembly, prime minister, president, secretary general, and approximately 200 members of the central party committee. Under the 2016 Press Law, the media must serve as the voice of the Communist Party and state agencies, and the party controls the media.

THIS ARTICLE FIRST APPEARED IN THE JULY 2020 EDITION OF THE SUB-REGIONAL INTELLIGENCE MONITOR FOR southeast asia

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