Authorities in Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City arrested businesswoman and social media influencer Nguyen Phuong Hang for livestreaming videos critical of celebrities, police announced Thursday.
Hang, the CEO of the Dai Nam Joint Stock Company, was taken in on charges of “abusing the rights to freedom and democracy.” Police said they arrested Hang for “insulting and foul language to offend the honor and dignity of others, including artists,” on her popular YouTube channel.
Her videos criticizing celebrities and politicians have made her an internet sensation, with each post garnering hundreds of thousands of views.
In a video livestreamed two days before her arrest, Hang talked extensively about her business relationship with Phan Van Mai, the current chairman of the Ho Chi Minh City People’s Committee, when he was a politician in the southern province of Ben Tre.
She said that when he was serving as the secretary of the Ben Tre Party Committee in 2020, her company had provided water treatment systems to help the province to cope with increased salinization, a constant problem in the Mekong River delta region due to climate change and upstream development.
“[Phan Van Mai] has been ungrateful to my husband and me,” said Hang, who added that she went public about their dealings so that Vietnam’s top leaders would see Mai’s true colors, making him ineligible for promotion to even higher positions.
Hang has been charged with violating Article 331 of the Vietnamese penal code, a law which international human rights organizations have said is a tool for the government to silence dissenting voices and restrict freedom of speech.
Hang’s arrest was unjustifiable, a Vietnamese lawyer, who requested anonymity for safety reasons, told RFA’s Vietnamese Service via text messages.
“If the government takes what she has done as an abuse of the rights to freedom and democracy, many other people could be accused in a similar way for their statements,” the lawyer said.
The lawyer said the subjects of Hang’s criticism could file a civil case against her, but she should not be jailed for offering her opinions.
“Whoever was offended or insulted by Hang can sue her. The case should not be criminalized,” he said.
Applying Article 331 as it has been in Hang’s case could lead to complaints from people who want someone that they have a grudge against to go to jail.
“For example, you and I have personal animosity against each other, and you report to the police that I have violated Article 331. As a result, I can be arrested and put into prison,” he said.
In January 2022, civil society groups in Vietnam composed a joint petition, calling for the removal of three penal code articles, including 331, because they are often used arbitrarily to crack down on political dissidents.
Translated by Anna Vu. Written in English by Eugene Whong.