Friday, October 21 2016


Freedom of speech in the age of social media

Update: November, 26/2015 - 09:15

by Chi Lan

Vietnamese might have to take a minute to think through whether they can gossip about an official on the internet, especially after what happened in An Giang province recently.

In early October, a teacher named Le Thi Thuy Trang shared a news article on Facebook regarding a proposal by the Government's inspectors to hold a disciplinary hearing on the An Giang People's Committee Chairman following the authorities' wrongdoing in land management with the possibility of corruption. Under her post with the status of "let's do it to please the folks', there was a comment saying that particular chairman was "the most arrogant and distant to the residents of all chairmanships of An Giang".

That comment, though posted by an account of Phan Thi Kim Nga, an official of the Department of Industry and Trade, was later identified by the local police as being written by Nga's husband, Nguyen Huy Phuc. He is just an ordinary officer at An Giang Electricity.

The post and the comment were supposed to be a normal interaction on the most popular social network in Viet Nam, until a few days later when Nga was removed from her post while the Facebook couple were fined VND5 million (US$222) each.

It turned out to be the headline on every newspaper.

Is it legal?

The authorities just simply reasoned that the three involved have breached the law which prohibiting any slanders or offenses that damage the dignity, honour and reputation of the ones affected, in this case, our dear Chairman Vuong Binh Thanh.

It is good to know that we have an appropriate regulation to protect the citizens from being hurt by evil slanders and speeches. No one, citizen or official alike, should endure offenses that look down on what we treasure and take to heart, like our faith to a religion, the love to our family, our pride in our origin and our dignity.

So the question here is: does that brief definition of offense apply in this case? I guess not, unless having a personal opinion and voicing it out means the same with making an offense.

The comment made by the husband, by any way it is looked at, is simply the thinking of a resident about his provincial leader when he is not living up to the expectation of his voter. Phuc was not satisfied with the chairman's attitude to the residents. And he said it in one short comment, out of billions of comments posted everyday on Facebook, our same real-life community but in the digital world.

Phuc, or any Vietnamese citizen, is unconditionally granted the right to the freedom of speech, as stated in the country's Constitution. If he is allowed to exercise his right in the real life, I believe it is undeniable that he can also do it on his virtual community.

Is it illegal?

The punishment decisions were released on October 16, and nearly a month later, on Tuesday, after the story had made its way to the top of the news list, the provincial Party Committee had to ask to cancel all penalties made to the three people involved.

That meant something. If the authorities rightfully acted by the law, why does it have to revoke its decisions now? Is it the way the province unofficially acknowledges that it was on the wrong side, though the chairman himself kept saying those three Facebookers were at fault?

As a matter of fact, this was not first time when the same kind of story regarding a simple comment on Facebook resulted in administrative actions in real life.

In September this year, the month when the children go back to school, a mother in HCM City Nguyen Minh Hieu was stunned to find out her son was unilaterally expelled from his primary school V-star.

The school told the mother that the expulsion came following one of her comments on Facebook, in which she talked about how ugly the tie in the school's uniform was, especially in comparison to that of the South Korean's uniforms.

V-star school said she had "dragged down the reputation of the school", and therefore her child was not allowed to study there anymore.

The scandal went on for a while, with the confirmation of the municipal Department of Education and Training that the school was in the wrong. But then it all ended when Hieu's son had to move to another school to study. And that was all, not even an apology to the parents and the boy.

What do the two stories have in common? One is the exercising of a personal opinion on a public social platform. The second is, it seems, the abuse of power to punish that freedom of speech. And last but not least, no penalty for that ignorance of rule of law.

No, sorry, but I haven't heard of any penalty yet. — VNS

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