New York, September 17, 2007— The Committee to Protect Journalists is gravely concerned about the ongoing Vietnamese government harassment of Peter Leech, the owner and publisher of the popular business news Web site Intellasia.
On September 12 Vietnam’s political police unit, known as PA25, and the Culture Ministry ordered the Australia-registered and Hanoi-based news service to close down or face punishment for operating an “illegal” Web site. Between September 7-10, Vietnamese authorities blocked nearly all local access to the Web site, including through the main state-run Internet service provider. In response to government threats, the online news service in recent days changed its domain name from Intellasia.com to Intellasia.net and is now based in Perth, Australia.
Intellasia published a report yesterday alleging that the Vietnamese authorities had put in place filters that blocked all Vietnam-based e-mail traffic to and from the Web site’s U.S.-based server. The report also claimed that Vietnamese authorities had in recent weeks attempted to overload and crash Intellasia’s server. The Web site’s U.S.-based server crashed from this notorious hacking technique on September 3.
“Vietnam has opened its doors to foreign investment but is paradoxically cracking down on the very type of news investors require to make their business decisions,” says Joel Simon, CPJ’s executive director. “We call on the Vietnamese authorities to immediately cease and desist from harassing Intellasia and allow it to provide alternative news and views from the state-controlled media.”
This most recent move against the Web site is part of a longer series of government actions. Leech said his wife and the Web site’s Vietnamese translators and four staff have been harassed, threatened with jail terms and on several occasions been interrogated by PA25 police, Culture Ministry, and immigration officials. On August 21, Vietnamese authorities fined the Web site 20 million Vietnamese dong (US$1,200) for operating illegally and a Culture Ministry official threatened to take “much more severe action” if Leech did not leave the country, according to a chronology of events recently posted on Intellasia. Fearing for his safety, Leech fled Vietnam for Australia on August 25, leaving behind his wife and 6-year-old son.
He told CPJ via e-mail that the crackdown on his Web site was “purely political” and that he fears for the safety of his family.
Leech said that over the last three months of government harassment he has never been told by officials what content on the Web site they considered objectionable. He said Intellasia ran wire agency stories earlier this year about the recent arrests and trials of political dissidents, but that the Web site did not publish any independent reports about the crackdown.
On July 3 Intellasia’s offices were raided by a group of six to eight PA25 police and Culture Ministry officials, who accused Leech of operating an illegal Web site and demanded to see company papers. The group was led by a PA25 official who refused to show proper identification or produce an official search warrant, according to Intellasia’s chronology. Leech’s wife, Tam, was taken away for several hours of interrogation at an office of the Culture Ministry.
Officials involved in the raid claimed the Web site was operating illegally and seized crucial company papers, according to the Intellasia account. Three days later, officials informed Leech’s wife that she would be charged with “propaganda against the state,” the penalty for which is two years in jail, according to Intellasia.
The official attacks intensified on August 17 when a number of state-controlled newspapers, including the online An Ninh Thu Do, accused Intellasia of running “reactionary” articles and of operating an illegal Web site. Three days later, Tam received a phone call from the landlord of the building where Intellasia had rented office space saying that local police had informed her that it “would be in her best interest” to cancel the office lease contract with the company, according to the news service.