PARIS, 6 April 2016 (VCHR) – The amended Press Law and the new Law on Access to Information, adopted by overwhelming votes by the Vietnamese National Assembly (respectively 89.5% and 97.5%) on 5 and 6 April, add new tools to Vietnam’s arsenal of repressive legislation, just as the authorities are launching a fierce crackdown on freedom of expression in Vietnam.
“Within the past two weeks alone, seven people have been sentenced to over 22 years in prison for exercising their legitimate rights to freedom of expression and assembly, and the Minister of Public Security is now the President of Vietnam” said VCHR President Võ Văn Ái. “These laws confirm once again the government’s all-out offensive against human rights. Under these laws, the one-Party State is empowered to stifle all free debate on politics, history, religion and social issues, and hide any information it wants from its population”.
The amended Press Law appears more like a shield against anti-government criticism than a law on press freedom. It increases the number of “prohibited acts” from four to thirteen. All are unduly vague and place wide-ranging restrictions on the media. Banned activities include publishing “distorted information about the Socialist Republic of Vietnam” perceived to “defame the people’s government”, “run contrary to the country’s international unity policies”, “cause alarm amongst the people” or “sow division between the people and State authorities”. The diffusion of “confidential information” and “state secrets” is banned, and the lack of a clear definition of these terms enables the authorities to apply this classification to virtually any document. Contrary to recommendations by the United Nations and civil society to bring Vietnam’s laws into line with international standards and norms, the amended Press Law continues to criminalize a wide range of activities which are left solely to the appreciation of the state, such as “propagating depraved lifestyles”, “violating the country’s traditions and values”, or “distorting history, denying revolutionary achievements or offending the nation or its heroes”.
Concerning freedom of religion or belief, the law bans “superstition”, without defining the term, and incorporates “national security” provisions from the Criminal Code such as “causing division between non-religious and religious people, people of different religions, between religious people and State authorities” which are routinely invoked to suppress independent religious activities. More disturbingly, the law adds a new prohibition on information which “offends people’s religious belief”. This evokes the “defamation of religions” debate which has raised grave concerns in the United Nations and within civil society worldwide because it questions the right to freedom of expression and the universality of human rights.
The amended Press Law also maintains state control on journalists by continuing to require that they re-apply for their press cards every five years. The law comes into force on 1st January 2017.
The new Law on Access to Information, which takes effect on 1st July 2018, raises serious concerns regarding freedom of expression and the right to know, or the right of individuals to access information held by public authorities. The 2015 draft of this law was severely criticized by the Centre for Law and Democracy, who placed Vietnam near the bottom (93rd out of 102) of a list of countries rated for their access to information legislation. First and foremost, citizens’ right to access to information does not appear to be an inherent right in Vietnam, but one which only exists as regulated by law.
Furthermore, the Law on Access to Information does not override existing legislation, but stipulates a number of grounds for restricting access to information which are inacceptable under international law. These include “state secrets”, which are not defined, or vague terms such as “social order and ethics”, “State security”, “interests of the nation, people and State”, or “propaganda”. Moreover, the public will only have access to information produced after the law comes into force, and only information declassified by government. There is no time frame provided for the declassification of information
In addition, the law is dissuasive and cumbersome, requiring citizens who seek access to information explain why they need this information, and provide details of their names, addresses and ID or passport numbers. Under the law, the authorities are not obliged to provide receipts to those who request information, which deprives citizens of proof in case of dispute. Where access to information is denied, the authorities do not have to provide the reasons for their refusal, and the citizens have no alternative mechanisms of recourse. “Wrongful use of information” is subject to sanctions.
Also of concern is the lack of protection for “whistleblowers”, people who release information which reveals wrongdoing. Vietnamese laws provide heavy penalties for such acts under a range of different pretexts, such as the case of Nguyễn Mạnh Hà and Trần Anh Hùng, sentenced respectively to 5 and 6 years in prison in October 2013 for leaking a draft government report on a controversial development project in Nhatrang to the media. They were accused of “revealing state secrets”.