Attacks on the Press 2009: Vietnam

Top Developments
• Bloggers face regular harassment and detention.
• Government conducts extensive online censorship.

Key Statistic
300: Number of cybercafés outfitted with software tracking visits to banned Web sites.

While maintaining its tight grip on traditional news media, the government intensified its already significant controls over the Internet with new restrictions on content and heightened monitoring of the blogs that have emerged as an alternative source of news and commentary. Internet penetration continued to surge, with an estimated 22 million users among the country’s approximately 89 million people, according to Ministry of Information and Telecommunications statistics.


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Of those, the government estimated that as many as 2 million users maintained blogs of various types. The surge in blogging posed a dilemma for the authoritarian government: It sought to promote Internet access to modernize the economy while maintaining strict restrictions on freedom of expression, especially criticism of top-ranking Communist Party leaders or discussion of sensitive government policies.

Many traditional journalists also maintained blogs to publish news and commentary censored by their state-controlled newspapers. Online reporters and bloggers who posted articles critical of bilateral relations with neighboring China were singled out for harassment, interrogation, and temporary detention. Growing commercial and diplomatic ties with China were increasingly sensitive in Vietnam in light of the neighboring countries’ often antagonistic history.

On August 27, police detained political blogger Bui Thanh Hieu, known online as Nguoi Buon Gio (or “Wind Trader”), over entries critical of Vietnam’s unresolved territorial disputes with China, including the long-contested Paracel and Spratly islands. Hieu also posted material concerning what he considered the government’s heavy-handed management of land disputes with the Roman Catholic Church. According to the Free Journalists Network of Vietnam (FJNV), an independent press freedom advocacy group, police searched Hieu’s house during his arrest and confiscated two computers and other personal belongings. He was detained for more than a week.

Pham Doan Trang, a reporter with the popular online news site VietnamNet and a blogger under the name “Trang the Ridiculous,” was detained on August 28 on allegations of violating national security laws. Trang had also reported on sensitive territorial disputes between China and Vietnam, a news story tightly controlled in the state-run media. The Associated Press reported that access to several of Trang’s articles on China-related topics and other issues was blocked by the government after her arrest. On her politically oriented blog, she frequently mocked senior party members’ public speeches. She was released without charge after a week in police detention.

Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, a blogger who wrote as Me Nam (“Mother Mushroom”), was detained for her online postings. As many as 17 police officials stormed her residence around midnight outside the southern coastal city of Nha Trang. Authorities seized her computer, hard drive, and other belongings during her arrest, according to FJNV. Quynh had posted blog entries on sensitive topics concerning China-Vietnam relations, including a controversial bauxite mining project led by Chinese investors in the country’s Central Highlands as well as territorial disputes. Quynh was released after a week in detention after agreeing to stop updating her blog. She faced potential charges of “abusing democratic freedoms to infringe on the interests of the state,” a crime punishable by prison terms under the penal code’s Article 258.

A blogger who wrote as “Sphinx” was detained by authorities on August 29 and released four days later. According to FJNV, he was subjected to sleep deprivation during interrogations over his short and sometimes witty blog posts that touched on Vietnam-China relations. He had also posted pictures of himself wearing a T-shirt saying “Paracel and Spratly islands belong to Vietnam.” While in detention, a group of his associates anonymously updated his widely read blog.

In May, CPJ ranked Vietnam among the 10 Worst Countries to Be a Blogger, a characterization the government took issue with in comments in the state-controlled media. CPJ based its assessment on the government’s extension of traditional media restrictions to the blogosphere, and the continued detention of blogger Nguyen Van Hai, also known as Dieu Cay, who was sentenced to 30 months in prison in 2008 on tax evasion charges that his supporters say were trumped up.

In October, the U.S. Congress passed a resolution calling on the government to release imprisoned bloggers and respect Internet freedom. Vietnamese government spokeswoman Nguyen Phuong Nga said the resolution was “unbiased and untrue” and that “in Vietnam, no one is arrested, detained, or tried for expressing their views,” according to news reports.  

The online crackdown also drew critical attention to the state-run Administration Agency for Radio, Television, and Electronics Information, a new body created in October 2008 to monitor the Internet and blogosphere. According to CPJ sources, the Vietnamese police also maintained their own separate Internet surveillance unit. The government maintained blocks on Web sites, mainly Vietnamese-language ones, including those belonging to opposition political parties, including the exile-run Viet Tan, and other pro-democracy and human rights organizations.

According to OpenNet Initiative, a research project on Internet censorship, Vietnam maintained “pervasive filtering practices” and, along with Burma and China, “continued to block content with the greatest breadth and depth” among Asian nations.

Internet traffic was monitored by authorities at the international Internet gateways into Vietnam that are operated by the country’s 15 or so private and government-run Internet service providers, according to a CPJ source familiar with the government’s monitoring techniques. Privately and publicly managed Internet cafés, which in recent years have proliferated in Vietnam’s major urban areas, were required to check and record photo identification and store information about their customers’ online activities.

To intensify that surveillance, the government’s telecommunications and media department installed in 300 Internet cafés in Hanoi new software designed to record and send reports to officials when users visited unsanctioned Web sites. According to local news reports, department director Pham Quoc Ban said in October that once the software was successfully tested, it would be extended to 3,000 more cafés across the city.

On August 19, bloggers took another hit with the closing of Yahoo’s 360° blog service, a platform that was immensely popular among Vietnam’s bloggers, partially because it maintained its servers outside the country, in Singapore. Yahoo launched a new blogging service, 360° Plus, with servers inside Vietnam. Bloggers concerned about maintaining anonymity moved to other foreign-hosted platforms, including WordPress and Blogspot, as well as social networking sites Facebook and Multiply. Facebook became inaccessible to many in late year, according to widespread reports, but the government denied involvement. 

According to VietnamNet, Yahoo Vietnam’s director, Vu Minh Tri, said the decision to close the 360° service was part of the company’s plan to restructure and “Vietnamize” its services and fix errors that occurred with the format. The decision came after Deputy Minister of Information and Communication Do Quy Doan said that his ministry would seek the assistance of Google and Yahoo to “regulate” the content of blogs and Web sites, according to an Agence France-Presse report that quoted the Vietnamese-language Thanh Nien daily newspaper.  

(Yahoo is a member of the Global Network Initiative, a consortium of technology companies, academics, and free expression groups, including CPJ, to address issues of corporate responsibility when dealing with censorious governments.)

A December 2008 Information Ministry directive aimed to bring online media under the same censorship regime imposed on the traditional media. The circular broadly banned blogs from posting “reactionary information that damaged national security, social safety and the people’s solidarity.” It also barred bloggers from posting “secrets relating to the state, military, security, economy, and foreign affairs.” The circular also required ISPs to build databases on individual blogs for government surveillance purposes.

The government maintained strict control over the mainstream media. That included Monday meetings between Information Ministry officials and local newspaper editors to go over what stories were off-limits for the week. Editors were expected to self-censor their publications and shy from reporting critically on top ministers and central policies, according to the source.

Editors and reporters who fell out of step with those orders were treated severely. On January 2, the government ordered the dismissal of two senior newspaper journalists, Nguyen Cong Khe, editor of the daily Thanh Nien (Young People), and Le Hoang, editor of Tuoi Tre (Youth). Their dismissals came months after their respective publications were found guilty by a Vietnamese court in 2008 of “abusing democratic freedoms” in connection with their reporting on a government corruption scandal involving former Transport Minister Dao Dinh Binh and World Bank funds. Thanh Nien reporter Nguyen Viet Chien, who led the way in breaking the story, was sentenced to two years in prison in 2008. He was freed by a presidential pardon on January 17.