Mong Palatino

blogging about the philippine left and southeast asian politics since 2004


@mongster is a manila-based activist, former philippine legislator, and blogger/analyst of asia-pacific affairs.

written for The Diplomat

Vietnam is often accused of being an enemy of media freedom because of its notorious record of jailing dissident bloggers and blocking social networks. Its new Internet decree, which purportedly contains several provisions that ban the sharing of online news stories, could be added to the list of its crimes against the online community.

Decree 72, or the “Management, Provision, Use of Internet Services and Information Content Online”, was signed by Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung on July 15 but was only made public last week. It immediately became controversial because of its confusing provisions that seem to ban the sharing of news stories on various social networks.

For example, clause 20.4 states that a personal information webpage is not allowed to provide aggregated information. But what exactly is “aggregated information?” Tuổi Trẻ newspaper quoted Vietnam’s Broadcast and Electronic Information Department which interpreted it as a reminder for individuals not to “quote or share information from press agencies or websites of government agencies.”

The report added that Deputy Minister of Information and Communications Le Nam Thang said the new decree is intended to prevent the spread of false information online. Thang said Decree 72 will help users “find correct and clean information on the internet.”

He added, “Personal webpage owners are only allowed to provide their own information, and are prohibited from taking news from media agencies and using that information as if it were their own.”

Is this an instruction and a warning to Vietnamese Internet users not to write, retweet, or share news articles culled from public sources? Exchanging of public information on social media is now deemed a criminal act?

For Reporters Without Borders, the decree is simply “the harshest offensive against freedom of information.” The media watchdog also described it as “nonsensical and extremely dangerous” because “its implementation will require massive and constant government surveillance of the entire Internet.”

For its part, Human Rights Watch is worried that the decree will be used for “selective persecution.”

According to Phil Robertson of Human Rights Group, “This is a law that will be used against certain people who have become a thorn in the side of the authorities in Hanoi.”

Meanwhile, the Vietnam Committee on Human Rights rejected the decree as “fatally flawed and inconsistent with international human rights law and standards.”

But the government dismissed the criticisms and claimed that as usual these “unfriendly” groups have misunderstood the provisions of the law. During a press conference, Vietnamese authorities explained that the decree, once implemented, would actually generate conditions for the development of internet standards in the country. They also insisted that the decree has no provision prohibiting individuals from sharing information on social networks.

According to the government, the primary intent of the decree – which has six chapters and 46 articles – is to protect intellectual property rights and the copyrights of press agencies. Indeed, a rising number of copyright infringement cases have recently alarmed many companies and businesses. But Steven Millward of Tech in Asia thinks that Vietnam’s new Internet decree is not fixing the problem.

“Vietnam seems to be striking at social media and individual sharing rather than fixing the cause of the problem: content piracy by lazy news sites. Surely media industry regulation would be a better move than this kind of ban,” he wrote.

If media groups really misunderstood the provisions of the decree, then the Vietnamese government has no one to blame but itself for using vague terms. Or perhaps the use of broad categories was deliberate to sow confusion and discourage Internet users from supporting online activities that could be categorized as belonging to the prohibited acts of the decree.

Since the law will take effect on September 1, the government still has enough time to scrap this confusing Internet decree and draft a new one. But if they do so, maybe for a change the government should consider consulting the local Internet community and other media stakeholders which would be affected by the new regulation.

Oil Spill Disasters Strike Thailand and the Philippines

written for The Diplomat

First, the forest fires in Indonesia that caused a deadly haze to descend on Singapore and Malaysia. And now an oil spill disaster in Thailand and the Philippines. This is turning out to be a bad year for the environment.

About 50,000 liters of crude oil spilled into the Gulf of Thailand on July 27 from a pipeline operated by PTT Global Chemical Plc. The oil slick reached Samet island off Rayong province which is a popular tourist destination. PTT immediately apologized and vowed to help in the rehabilitation of the area.

Local fishing families said that their livelihoods were gravely affected by the disaster because restaurants operating in the famous tourist island have refused to buy fish products from them. Motorbike and taxi rental shops have also suffered because of dwindling tourist arrivals.

PTT claimed that the “emergency situation” has been “terminated” already through a clean-up operation that removed 99 percent of the oil slick. But civil society groups are not convinced and have accused the company of disclosing insufficient information about the real impact of the oil spill on the environment.

“Since the incidence has occurred, PTT GC has insisted that the situation is not worrying and is containable. The lack of disclosure as to potential impacts on the environment and people has left public in the dark as far as the harmful situation is concerned,” the groups said in a joint statement.

They wanted PTT to explain the real reasons for the pipeline leakage and in particular discuss the chemical dispersants they used to remove the oil sludge. They also urged the government “to enforce applicable criminal and civil provisions to bring the perpetrators to justice and to ensure that such incidence shall not happen again.”

According to environmental groups, there have been more than 200 oil spill disasters in Thailand in the past three decades.

Less than two weeks after the bursting of an oil pipeline in Thailand, another oil spill disaster hit the region when a leak in an underwater pipeline of Petron Corp. poured 500,000 liters of diesel into the waters of Manila Bay. It affected four towns in Cavite, the most populous province in the Philippines located south of Manila.

It took Petron several days before it apologized and claimed responsibility for the disaster.

“We sincerely apologize and assure all the communities affected that we will strive to resolve the situation at the soonest possible time. We will pursue proper remediation and clean-up of the areas affected, aiming to restore the means of livelihood of the local communities,” said Petron President Lubin B. Nepomuceno.

But for green groups, the Cavite oil spill is a grim reminder of Petron’s dirty record. According to reports, Petron also caused an oil spill in the same area three years ago. The company also caused the worst oil spill disaster in the country’s history seven years ago:

“Exactly seven years after the worst maritime oil disaster in the Philippines caused by Petron in the province of Guimaras, the same oil giant has caused a repeat performance in Manila Bay with yet another oil spill affecting several towns in Cavite province. It’s the same story over again: fish and shellfish kills, affected coral reefs, and immediate impacts on the health and livelihood of coastal communities,” said Kalikasan PNE, a local environmental group.

Indeed, Southeast Asia is vulnerable to the harsh impact of climate change, but this year’s environmental disasters in the region – the deadly haze and oil spill – are primarily and directly caused by irresponsibility.

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