Media Availability in Hanoi, Vietnam
Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY BAER: Thanks everybody for turning up. I won’t talk for very long. I’ll try to conserve as much time as possible for questions.
I’m really pleased to be here in Vietnam. Assistant Secretary Posner from the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor was here in December for our annual Human Rights Dialogue with the Vietnamese, and obviously Secretary Clinton was here last year, so I am following up on many of the issues that the two of them raised in their earlier visit.
As folks know, the United States has a rapidly growing and developing and expanding relationship with the government of Vietnam that we look forward to continuing. That covers a range of issues and human rights are part of all of our conversations. So this is an opportunity for me to raise human rights in the context of a broad range of issues.
As was just said, I had a good conversation with a bunch of students just now following up on the Secretary’s speech about internet freedom last week, and had some good tough questions as only students are able to raise -- no offense to journalists. It was a good conversation and a highlight of the trip.
I look forward to being here. I’ll be here for more meetings tomorrow and then I head down to Ho Chi Minh City tomorrow evening and leave on Saturday for Laos.
With that, I will throw open the floor.
QUESTION: Can you tell us a little bit about your meetings so far?
DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY BAER: I’ve had meetings at the Foreign Ministry and at the Ministry of Information and Communications. They were both very good meetings. The Ministry of Information and Communications obviously the focus was on internet freedom. We talked about the Secretary’s speech. We talked about kind of big picture, long game issues in terms of the role that we see the internet potentially playing as a positive force for development in Vietnam. Knowing both the economic goals of the government of Vietnam and also our expectation that there will be growing trade and deepening economic relations between the two countries, the importance of preserving the internet as an open space in which innovation and free exchange of ideas can develop. We also talked about kind of having a conversation about the specifics of regulation, et cetera and agreed to continue that conversation in the future.
QUESTION: The U.S. and Vietnamese governments have different views about how the internet should be regulated. To what extent are these discussions both sides just stating their positions? Or is there a dialogue about maybe new ways that Vietnam can allow more internet freedom?
DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY BAER: I do buy your premise and I think I buy your own solution to it. Yes, we start from some very obvious apparent differences. We share some common goals. The goal of the conversation in that respect is to figure out how to meet those goals and be cognizant of the differences that we start from.
I think the Secretary’s speech last week was intended in part to make the case that we think the balance should tilt towards openness. That’s a philosophical position that has practical implications and those will add up in any legal environment. They add up to hundreds maybe thousands of different decisions about how specific regulations are written, et cetera.
Particularly, and this isn’t unique to Vietnam, but many governments are responding so quickly to technological changes that there’s an important practical conversation to be had about unintended consequences of particular kinds of regulation that may have economic effects, et cetera. And certainly those practical conversations are ones that aren’t precluded by ongoing philosophical differences, and we’ll continue to raise the philosophical differences because we’re committed to the universal values that we believe our view of the internet is grounded on.
QUESTION: I’m just wondering, clearly there was a fairly massive clamp-down on the internet including Facebook. Largely in the past you‘ve been able to bypass the barriers they’ve put up, but right before the Party Congress it was very difficult to bypass these barriers and get through. Now as we see what’s happened in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East and clearly Facebook and some of these other social networking tools have played a major part in bringing together these protests. I’m just wondering, given what they’re seeing happening right now, why would they want to loosen up their grip on something that they fear is a potential to overthrow the government here?
Look, I think the Secretary made a case. Our eyes are unavoidably trained on the Middle East right now, and indeed there have been stories on the front pages of all the major newspapers about the role or the lack of a role because it’s an open question how much of a role social media played. My personal view is that we have to remember that wires don’t make change, people make change. And that social media is one example of the way the internet has created a platform in which people can come together. It’s also important to remember that the role of social media is wider than the particular instances that we’re focused on right now, and for most people social media are a place to send pictures home from the study abroad to mom and dad or share messages with friends or plan a night out or laugh about a shared experience. So in that respect the picture is much broader. I think that’s part of what the Secretary was making the case for, painting a picture that starts with first principles of universal rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly, that creates an open space where a broad range of activities can take place.
I think the case that we’re trying to make is that blocking a site like Facebook isn’t just blocking political expressions, and blocking political expressions doesn’t change political opinions. So blocking a site isn’t just blocking political expressions, it’s blocking a place for people to come together and collaborate on the next business idea, and it’s blocking a place for the kind of free exchange that will help foster the next generation of economic leaders for this society and many others. So we’re trying to take the broader view and start with an argument that’s grounded in kind of first principles.
QUESTION: On another topic, did you happen to raise the matter of Father [Nguyen Van Ly]? On the 15th of next month his medical leave will run out. Did that come up? And whether it did or not, what is the administration’s hope at the expiration of the medical leave?
DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY BAER: I did raise Father Ly’s case as have many others from the American government in the past. We have publicly praised and endorsed the decision last year to release Father Li on medical parole, and we continue to call, as we have since he was imprisoned for his unconditional release. I was reminded earlier today that 37 U.S. Senators have signed a letter echoing that call, and for those of you who haven’t been back to Washington in a while, it’s not easier today than it was when you were last there to get 37 Senators to sign onto anything, so it’s a widely held view not only of the administration but of Members of both parties in Congress as well.
QUESTION: I think internet [inaudible]. So [inaudible], how do you see [inaudible] Vietnam? Do you [inaudible] recommendation of [inaudible]?
DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY BAER: I’m not an expert in addictions of any sort, gratefully, but I think there are a number of, it’s not unique to the on-line space. There are obviously, in all societies there are issues that parents raise, that they have concerns about their children. The important part is to be able to have a free and open conversation about those issues. The good news is that in most cases children become adults and I would expect that most of us who played video games as kids turn out okay in the end, but I think that’s a conversation that we would support having a free and open debate about what the best response to the growing playing of video games is. I don’t have any particular comment on the solution.
QUESTION: Up to now is there any intention from the U.S. side on the CPC (Countries of Particular Concern) list and Vietnam? Was your working trip to Vietnam related to this issue?
DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY BAER: Issues of religious freedom continue to be part of our ongoing conversation with the government. They were raised in my conversation with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs this morning.
What was the second half of your question?
QUESTION: Any news [inaudible], I mean when your working trip to Vietnam relates to the things that I mentioned, that U.S. side willing to [inaudible].
Voice: You’re talking about the list?
DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY BAER: Without commenting on, the list comes out when the list comes out. But issues of religious freedom fall under the purview of my bureau and they remain issues of top concern to the administration and to many Members of Congress. They’re a part of our ongoing dialogue.
We’ve had some good conversations about the potential for progress on those issues, and those are ongoing. We hope to be able to identify some concrete steps that represent progress in the near future.
QUESTION: I have a two-part question. The first part is about, I’m sorry if I missed it, how you view the attitude and the feedback from the new officials when you talked to them about [internet] freedom?
The second part is, I’m wondering if you can update us on the case of U.S. diplomat incident in Hue not so long ago.
DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY BAER: The conversations that I’ve had with the Vietnamese government have been cordial. They’ve been honest and straightforward. They’ve been productive. That is true in the case of the conversations around internet freedom and around other issues as well. I’ve been very grateful for the frank exchange of views. That doesn’t mean that we agree on everything, but we’ve had a good conversation and a good exchange of views.
As for the incident in Hue, the two governments have dealt with this through diplomatic channels and have made a commitment to make sure that that doesn’t happen again.
QUESTION: On the internet freedom spectrum to be announced between the United States and China, do you feel like it’s moving more in the direction of China? And after your conversations here, are you optimistic or do you have sort of a less optimistic view about which direction they would like things to go?
DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY BAER: I guess the first part of your question is a question for the government of Vietnam. I think we’ll continue to make the case for openness, and I think if I had to make a bet for the long run I think the case for openness will make itself. I think given the tremendous growth in internet penetration here, closing off part of the potential of the internet will not be a sustainable policy for the long run.
So I expect that in the long run the government of Vietnam will join the wide range of international actors who have made a choice towards openness, and we look forward to continuing the conversation to facilitate that however we can and to support it.
QUESTION: Is it going to get worse before it gets better?
DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY BAER: Again, that’s a question I would ask the government of Vietnam.
QUESTION: Do you feel like it’s gotten worse in recent months and years? Clearly they’ve come out with this new edict where they have to install, everyone has to install software and people are supposed to be monitored in terms of what they’re doing, and internet cafés. So do you feel like there has been a change in kind of the mood, that they’re actually getting a little bit tougher on it?
DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY BAER: I think we have significant concerns about some of the recent developments, not only legal but also as Secretary Clinton raised in her speech the imprisonment of bloggers. We have been clear that we don’t think people should be punished for peaceful expressions of political opinion or any other sort of opinion on-line. So certainly those are worrying examples of tending towards a closed internet. We’ll continue to raise them.
I think that when we look back at this moment decades hence, this kind of, I don’t know, five year, ten year period will be seen as indeed a moment in which many governments made choices. Just as people are making choices about how they will integrate the internet into their lives; governments are making choices right now and I think the Secretary’s speech was meant to speak to the moment in the sense of we’re at a crossroads and we’re making choices that will take us down a path towards a closed, fragmented internet that doesn’t allow us to harvest the full potential of the on-line space for a wide range of socially desirable things or towards an open internet that will remain as a space where people can come together and freely assemble and express their ideas.
QUESTION: During your conversation with the government do they ever express that closing the place will be just technical? Do they think that, do they express that promoting Facebook or other internet is just a business? Because we don’t have Facebook, [inaudible], become billionaire, not millionaire. So are they concerned that promoting the internet is only the way to promote U.S. business?
DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY BAER: I think the answer to your first question is no. Nobody said it was just a technical problem. And I’m not sure I totally understand your second question. Can you rephrase it? Is it just --
QUESTION: Did they express that U.S. is promoting internet because of business? After all --
DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY BAER: I see. It would be an interesting view. It certainly isn’t what motivates our commitment to internet freedom. However, I think that part of the bet that we’re making, as the Secretary put it in her speech, is that the fact that Silicon Valley exists in America is not an accident, and that it has to do with the same principles that we’ve been living by for over 200 years which facilitate the free-flow of ideas and allow people to come up with new ideas that may seem crazy at first, but end up being the basis for some sort of progress over time. And that cultivate the kind of society where ideas are freely exchanged, criticized, less effective ideas are discarded, more effective ideas are endorsed and put into practice. So I think the same kind of first principles that have served us well not only in the sense of serving the universal rights of all people have served us well in terms of over time constantly reinventing the American economy and staying at the cutting edge in something that we’ll continue to believe is the smart way forward, not just the right way forward. So in that sense we think it would be in Vietnam’s long term interest as well.
So when we make the case for internet freedom here it’s not about American business, it’s about Vietnam’s future and our desire to have a longstanding partnership with Vietnam.
QUESTION: My question is, it’s true that we hear cannot [inaudible]. That is [inaudible] difficult [inaudible] Vietnam. When you mentioned the [inaudible] and you refer to the issue of Facebook, what was, did they give you any new explanation for why we cannot access Facebook successfully? I would love to have some more specific information on why we cannot access Facebook.
DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY BAER: Without going into too much detail about the specific conversation, I raised it, we discussed it, and I put forward our position that it shouldn’t be blocked and that we had concerns about web sites in general being blocked and Facebook was an example. I’ll leave it at that.
QUESTION: No explanation.
DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY BAER: We had a conversation. It depends on what you count as an explanation.
QUESTION: Did you bring up this new press decree which I believe applies to traditional and on-line media which, for example, has penalties for media that do not disclose their sources? Did that come up?
DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY BAER: That was raised in the conversation, part of what we talked about was the fact, this goes back to the second follow-on effects. We talked about the fact that the way that different laws are written and implemented has an effect on freedom of expression and that the broader context matters and that it’s difficult for governments. Governments often have to resist the temptation to think that one can distinguish between good information and bad information. And that’s actually a very difficult judgment to make. As Secretary Clinton said in her speech, our view is that efforts to ban certain kinds of speech rarely serve the purpose that they are intended for, to the extent that there is a valid purpose, and they often end up getting used in ways that end up violating rights.
So we have concerns about such limitations, the new regulations being an example of the kinds of regulations that bring those kinds of conversations to the forefront.
QUESTION: I don’t think the Foreign Ministry spokesman or any other government official has ever admitted to me that they actually blocked Facebook. Did they say that they’re blocking it?
DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY BAER: We had a conversation about access to various sites and Facebook was one of those sites that we discussed.
QUESTION: You said you both have issues that you disagree and agree on. Can you tell us a point that you disagree on?
DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY BAER: I think we’ve discussed some of them today. We disagree on whether or not people should be censored or punished for expressions of peaceful political opinions on-line. We disagree on a practical level about how much regulation of the on-line space is conducive to preserving the internet as a platform for prosperity and progress. These are serious disagreements, but the conversation continues. We agree on the long-term goals of having the internet be a platform for increased prosperity for economic growth and a platform for collaboration both within and between our two countries.
QUESTION: Did you reach any common definitions, what internet freedom means?
DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY BAER: I have to say I’m not sure anybody anywhere in the world has reached a common definition. I think part of the Secretary’s speech last week, I said when I was talking to the students earlier, one of the things I’ve noticed over the last year as I’ve traveled and raised internet freedom in a variety of contexts is that internet freedom means many different things to many different people and many times I find myself in a situation where anything that’s good and that has to do with technology, the intersection of technology and goodness counts as internet freedom. I think part of what the Secretary was putting forward last week was that our commitment to internet freedom is a commitment to preserve the on-line space in which we would include mobile technology, et cetera, to preserve the on-line space based on the principles of freedom of expression, association and assembly as an open space in which all manner, a variety of activities can take place.
QUESTION: Was there any discussion about how they employ some of these very vague national security laws to basically, they kind of wield those however they wish to be able to jail people and hold them for many years? We’ve seen this over and over with pro-democracy dissidents, religious freedom forces, and we’ve also seen it now with the bloggers. But these laws are extremely broad and very very vague.
DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY BAER: We have raised from Secretary Clinton’s level on down we have raised our concerns with punishing people for free expression and political criticism for a while now, and we’ll continue to raise it for as long as the issue exists.
QUESTION: So you think there should be some reform to give some of these laws a little bit more specifics?
DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY BAER: Sure. I think that the current, we have made clear that we have serious concerns with the way those laws are implemented, and that probably one of the things that needs to change is the ambiguity in the laws themselves.
QUESTION: The issue of WikiLeaks raised?
DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY BAER: It was not. It was raised by the students.
QUESTION: What did you answer?
DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY BAER: It was a long answer and I couldn’t say it as well now as I did then. I’m tired. [Laughter].
QUESTION: Would you mind if I just asked a question about Laos?
DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY BAER: I don’t mind, but I’d probably be in a better position to answer it on Monday when I’ll be there.
QUESTION: I’m just wondering if there are any specific issues that you plan to bring to that government’s attention.
DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY BAER: Like I said, I probably would be in a better position to answer on Monday. Obviously we take a broad interest in the region and look forward to, we’ve been gratified by the blossoming of an increasingly open conversation with the government of Laos. Part of my visit is intended to continue that conversation.
Our ambassador there is a good friend of mine and a good friend of Laos who’s been there before, twice. And so her ongoing relationship with the country we think will be a good platform for continuing a conversation. I will raise a range of issues. I’ll talk about civil society and the importance that we see of civil society’s role in supporting stable prosperous societies.
QUESTION: The U.S. has raised a lot of times about [inaudible] and within government, so I wonder whether Vietnam falls into a kind of list that U.S. paying special attention to in terms of internet freedom. Or do you discuss these kinds of issues with any country in the world?
DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY BAER: There’s no secret list. And yes, the answer to your second question is that I think one of the effects of Secretary Clinton’s speech last year was that it really highlighted internet freedom as a foreign policy initiative. Not only of our government, but also we’ve been gratified to see how many other governments are taking this up. Two years ago I don‘t think it was terribly common for internet freedom to be a daily topic of conversation in the halls of foreign ministries around the world. I think today it is. And I think we’re probably still at the early stages of that conversation. We’ll see that continue. We have discussions about internet freedom with a broad range of partners.
It’s perhaps, one of the special parts about it as a foreign policy topic is that it’s so naturally tripartheid or multi-stakeholder. So many of the fora in which we discuss internet freedom with other governments are also fora in which companies and civil society play a part. The Internet Governance Forum which I attended in Vilnius in September is a good example of that where companies, governments and civil society come together to talk about issues related to internet governance. The French and the Dutch hosted a meeting last summer on internet freedom where again there were companies and civil society there. So it’s been a really interesting space to watch.
QUESTION: What is the most difficult part in your job? When you talk with governments or other [inaudible].
DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY BAER: The most difficult part. I guess I would say for the first year of an internet freedom foreign policy the most difficult part is coming to conceptual clarity on what internet freedom is. So I guess that’s why I think the Secretary’s speech last week was so important. Because it really, if last year’s speech kind of put the issue on the map, this year’s speech laid out kind of the challenges that there are and the principles that we’ll take to guide us on the road ahead.
QUESTION: This is about China. I’m just wondering if you can respond to what’s been going on in China with this Jasmine Revolution and how they have particularly clamped down on the internet and anybody trying to assemble regarding this.
DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY BAER: I’ve been on the road but I have been following as much as I can from afar. Look, we have made clear publicly and privately that we have concerns with internet censorship in China. The Secretary reference it not only in this year’s speech but in last year’s speech and will continue to raise those concerns with the Chinese government. Human rights and freedom of expression are a part of our conversation with many governments around the world, and they’re certainly part of our ongoing conversation with the Chinese government.
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