• In run-up to Communist Party Congress, authorities clamp down on Internet.
• Critical blogs targeted in hacking attacks; government complicity seen.
5: Online journalists imprisoned on December 1, reflecting crackdown on Internet commentary.
Vietnam targeted online journalists in a clampdown on dissent ahead of a 2011 Communist Party Congress at which top government appointments and policies were to be determined. At least five journalistic bloggers were among dozens of activists arrested on national security-related charges, including “spreading propaganda against the state” and “abusing democratic freedoms.” The government maintained some of the world’s strictest Internet controls, which included blocks on Facebook and numerous Vietnamese-language websites, including those maintained by the exile-run, pro-democracy Viet Tan and human rights organizations critical of the government. Independent analysts found evidence of official involvement in hacking attacks on critical blogs and websites.
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Two politically oriented blogs, Blogosin (Housekeeper) and Bauxite Vietnam, came under particular attack, according to The Associated Press and Agence France-Presse. Bauxite Vietnam, a site established to protest a controversial China-led bauxite mining project in Vietnam’s Central Highlands region, came under distributed denial-of-service (DDOS) attacks beginning in December 2009, according to the reports. DDOS attacks are a form of censorship by information overload, in which hundreds of thousands of computers are coordinated to send or demand data from a single website, causing its connection to the Internet to choke up or the server to crash. After several attempts to restore the popular blog, the site’s administrators eventually moved it to the internationally hosted Blogspot and WordPress platforms. The bauxite issue is considered sensitive because of the large number of Chinese workers brought in to work in the mines, which are situated in a strategically important and environmentally significant area. Government critics have portrayed the agreement as bowing to Chinese interests.
After Blogosin was attacked in February, the blog’s writer, Truong Huy San, who wrote under the pen name Huy Duc, posted a message on a newly created home page to say that he would stop writing to focus on personal matters. A former reporter with the state-run Saigon Tiep Thi (Saigon Marketing) daily newspaper, San had been dismissed from his position in August 2009 after posting entries critical of government policy on his personal blog.
In March, in an effort to help customers detect malicious software, experts at Google and the computer security company McAfee reported that malware had been used to spy on dissidents and disable their websites through DDOS attacks. “Specifically, these attacks have tried to squelch opposition to bauxite mining efforts in Vietnam, an important and emotionally charged issue in the country,” Neel Mehta wrote in a Google Online Security blog entry on March 30. McAfee investigations pointed to possible government complicity in the attacks. “We believe that the perpetrators may have political motivations and may have some allegiance to the government of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam,” George Kurtz, McAfee’s chief technology officer, wrote in March on his company’s blog.
Independent researchers found that one of the most widely used Vietnamese software programs–VPSKeys, a utility allowing Vietnamese characters to be entered on a standard keyboard–had been infected with malware that enabled remote groups to track the user’s keystrokes. The malware also hijacked computers, making them part of a “botnet” that could be remotely controlled from afar, according to McAfee.
Authorities denied involvement in the malware or other cyber-attacks. In June, however, the Hanoi People’s Committee, which oversees the city’s administration, ordered the installation of monitoring software in public computers, including those in Internet cafés, across the capital city. Few details were disclosed, but Hanoi, where Communist Party control is strongest, was seen as the logical place to launch a monitoring program. The order followed a 2009 government test of surveillance software in 300 Internet cafés in Hanoi.
CPJ’s annual worldwide census of imprisoned journalists identified five Vietnamese bloggers jailed for their journalism. Pham Thanh Nghien, an online writer, was sentenced in January to four years in prison and three years of house arrest on charges of spreading antistate material. The court ruling singled out an online article in which she criticized public officials for siphoning off compensation funds intended for victims of fishermen killed by Chinese maritime patrols in 2007.
Authorities also lodged antistate charges against Pham Minh Hoang, a university mathematics professor and political blogger arrested in Ho Chi Minh City on August 13. Authorities said at a press conference that Hoang had been charged under Article 79 of the penal code for activities aimed at overthrowing the government. The charges filed against him, which were pending in late year, cited 29 blog entries written under the penname Phan Kien Quoc. He blogged frequently on issues related to corruption, the environment, and government policies toward China.
On October 18, Phan Thanh Hai, a political blogger who wrote under the penname Anh Ba Saigon (Saigon Brother Three), was arrested and provisionally detained for four months while authorities conducted an investigation. Hai’s blog often touched on issues considered sensitive by the Vietnamese authorities, including a scandal at state-run shipbuilder Vinashin, maritime and territorial disputes with China, and the controversial bauxite mining project in the country’s Central Highlands region.
Le Nguyen Huong Tra, a blogger who wrote under the pen name Do Long Girl, was taken into custody at her Ho Chi Minh City home on October 23. Her blog had developed a following by mixing humor and political analysis. Tra’s arrest stemmed from entries that were critical of Deputy Minister of Public Security Nguyen Khanh Toan. She faced possible criminal defamation charges, which carried a prison sentence of seven years.
Blogger Nguyen Van Hai, also known as Dieu Cay, remained behind bars when CPJ conducted its census on December 1, despite the expiration of his prison term in October. Hai was detained on trumped-up tax evasion charges in April 2008 and sentenced to two and a half years in prison. His popular blog was frequently critical of the government’s policies toward China. Officials said they would continue to hold Hai while they investigated the charges against him of disseminating anti-government propaganda, according to news reports.
The crackdown on online dissent came as Internet penetration grew to 24.2 million users, representing about 28 percent of the population, according to the International Telecommunication Union. Vietnam was in a situation similar to that of China: With an eye toward economic growth, the government was committed to improving Internet access even as it maintained strict control of content. The government used three main techniques to control cyberspace: blocking and filtering; hacker attacks, including DDOS attacks; and arrest and intimidation of citizen journalists and bloggers.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit in Hanoi in November, expressed Washington’s concerns about the crackdown. Because her critical remarks were not translated by an official interpreter, they were not carried on national TV or in any state-run media.
Print and broadcast media remained under tight state control and generally shied away from reporting on sensitive political issues such as the competition between Communist Party factions ahead of the January 2011 Congress. The Congress was a matter of intrigue as a conservative, security-minded faction was rivaling Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung and his technocratic clique.
Top editorial staff positions at newspapers, radio, and television stations were filled by their sponsoring government organs; all print and broadcast media were subject to Ministry of Information and Communications’ censorship. Certain media outlets were known to be aligned with competing Communist Party factions, and their news coverage often pumped up the credentials and activities of their preferred candidates.