As governments in Asia vie for control over the Internet and big tech, citizens on social media face increasing online pressure.

During Vietnam’s COVID-19 lockdowns last year, blogger Bui Van Thuan took to Facebook to criticize the government’s plan to use soldiers to deliver food to people locked in their homes in Ho Chi Minh City.

Days later, he was arrested.

Mr. Thuan, 41, a former teacher in the northern province of Hoa Binh, was sentenced last month to eight years in prison and a further five years’ probation for his propaganda.

Vietnamese authorities accused Mr. Thua of “developing, maintaining, disseminating or propagating information, materials and products aimed at opposing the nation.”

According to human rights groups, the charge is increasingly applied to online content as the state exercises greater control over the Internet.

“The Vietnamese government has long controlled traditional media in the country,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

“Now they are trying to control the online space.

“They have passed a series of laws to this end and are deploying state mechanisms to go after people online, forcing content moderation and removal decisions on platforms, using cyber trolls and controlling access to the internet.”

Mr. Thuan is the latest target of Vietnam’s internet crackdown, with authorities arresting dozens of journalists and bloggers, including a popular noodle vendor, on similar charges.

Last month, Vietnamese authorities said they were tightening rules to deal with “false” content on social media platforms – so it must be taken down within 24 hours.

This has made the Southeast Asian country one of the world’s most tightly controlled regimes for social media companies.

Still, Vietnam is not alone.

Online censorship reached an all-time high in 2022, with a record number of governments blocking political, social or religious content, according to Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Freedom House.

The organization’s annual report says growing “digital repression” has serious consequences for fundamental rights, including freedom of expression, access to information and privacy, “especially for people living in authoritarian regimes”.

“In some countries, it’s about limiting the voices of political dissidents, activists and others critical of the government,” said Damar Juniarto, executive director of the digital rights group Southeast Asia Network for Freedom of Expression (SafeNet).

“But governments also want to control the big tech firms – they see them as too powerful, too influential.”

“Draconian” time frame as governments press

More than three-quarters of the world’s more than 4.5 billion internet users live in countries where authorities punish online expression, according to Freedom House, which rates China as the worst environment for internet freedom.

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