A mushrooming blogosphere has challenged the state’s media monopoly, drawing a heavy-handed bid to bring the Internet under government control. By Shawn W. Crispin
When Vietnamese blogger Nguyen Lan Thang left his home in Hanoi to report on the trial of a group of political activists charged with anti-state crimes, he switched off his mobile phone to avoid government surveillance of his movements. Despite taking that precaution, the police raided the hotel where he was staying in the northern city of Vinh a day before the court hearing. Thang videotaped the raid from his balcony and posted the footage on his personal blog just minutes before he was arrested.
The police justified his detention without charge on the grounds that he had traveled to Vinh at a “sensitive” time. He and two other bloggers he traveled with were held in police custody for three days and were released only after the verdict in the two-day trial was announced on January 9, 2013. Thang says he was beaten during interrogations and later strip-searched by police officials looking for hidden digital camera memory cards.
“I’m a focal point for police,” Thang told CPJ, adding that he has been detained and interrogated on “dozens” of occasions because of his blogging. “When there is a trial of activists or planned protests, they send plainclothes police to guard my house to make sure I don’t leave.” To dodge trailing officials, Thang said, he now leaves his house several days in advance of big news events and communicates only over foreign-hosted online platforms like Skype to avoid GPS tracking of his location.
Thang’s experience is disturbingly typical of Vietnam’s growing number of persecuted independent bloggers. With at least 18 journalists behind bars, Vietnam was Asia’s second-worst jailer of the press, trailing only China, according to CPJ’s 2013 prison survey. More bloggers have been arrested since. The majority of those held have been charged or convicted under draconian and vague anti-state laws for their blogging or online journalism, including postings critical of the Communist Party-dominated government, its leadership, or its policies. Among them is Nguyen Van Hai, known in Vietnam’s blogosphere as Dieu Cay. A blogger who has been imprisoned since 2008, Hai is a recipient of CPJ’s 2013 International Press Freedom Award.
Vietnam’s government maintains some of the most severe media controls in Asia. All news media in the country are owned and controlled by the one-party state. There are no privately run news outlets. A mushrooming blogosphere, however, has challenged the Communist Party’s media monopoly in recent years, with a growing cadre of pseudonymous bloggers reporting stories and publishing commentaries that would be routinely censored in the mainstream press.
Forbidden topics include the activities of political dissidents and activists, factional divisions inside the Communist Party, human rights and pro-democracy issues, and any mention of ethnic differences between the country’s once-divided northern and southern regions. Reporting on anti-China sentiment or protests related to territorial disputes or extractive industry investments is also barred. As the local economy shifts from strength to weakness, the authorities have also blocked criticism of the government’s economic management, land conflicts between the government and local communities, and business dealings of top Communist Party members.
Beginning in 2008, the authorities have steadily clamped down on independent bloggers in a heavy-handed bid to bring the Internet under the same strict regulations and controls used to censor and guide the mainstream media’s news coverage. The number of politically oriented bloggers has grown alongside fast-rising Internet penetration rates, estimated by government figures at 39.5 percent of the population in late 2012. In response to that perceived threat, the government intensified its campaign of repression in 2013 through harsh prison sentences, arrests, and new freedom-curbing legislation for governing the Internet.
In January 2013, five bloggers who contributed regularly to the Catholic Church-run Vietnam Redemptorist News were sentenced to harsh jail terms and follow-up periods of house arrest for various anti-state crimes, including “undermining national unity” and “propagandizing against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.”
In mid-year, three prominent bloggers–Dinh Nhat Uy, Pham Viet Dao, and Truong Duy Nhat–were detained on accusations that their blogging had “abused democratic freedoms,” a charge outlined in Article 258 of the penal code that carries a sentence of up to seven years in prison. After a one-day trial, Uy was sentenced in October to a 15-month suspended prison sentence and one year of house arrest. The other two bloggers were still held without formal charge in late 2013.
Other bloggers critical of the government have endured severe abuse and humiliation. Blogger Nguyen Hoang Vi wrote a disturbing first-person account, posted on the Danlambao collective blog in January, about how police officials beat and stripped her and ordered state nurses to conduct a vaginal cavity search while she was in custody at Ho Chi Minh City’s Nguyen Cu Trinh Ward. Officials said at the time that they suspected she had hidden “illegal exhibits” on her body and they videotaped the assault. In May, Vi and two family members were assaulted by state agents when she demanded officials return her confiscated cellphone and iPad in front of a Ho Chi Minh City police station, according to a Human Rights Watch report.
In another case of abuse, blogger Le Anh Hung, known for his opinionated postings on high-level corruption and abuse of power inside the Communist Party, was arrested on January 24, 2013, and committed against his will to a psychiatric institution. Before his arrest, Hung had been subjected to repeated interrogations, threats and harassment by the police for his critical online writings. He was released 12 days after his arrest and soon resumed blogging, according to international news reports.
“Bloggers in Vietnam are living in fear,” said Pham Doan Trang, speaking in Bangkok. A former newspaper reporter, she was fired in January 2013 for blogging independently on banned topics and leaking censored information to fellow bloggers. “All of us have reported on things that could be considered anti-state. We can be arrested at any time; it is always looming over us.”
Those fears were compounded by a new decree enacted on September 1, 2013, that specifically targets bloggers and social media users. Among other restrictive provisions, Decree 72 on the Management, Provision and Use of Internet Services and Online Information broadly prohibits Vietnamese bloggers and Internet users from linking to or reposting news from press organizations or information from foreign government websites.
The legislation was not explicit about how global Internet companies would be penalized for refusing to cooperate with official orders to identify or censor bloggers who use their online platforms to criticize the government, or for failing to filter keywords deemed sensitive, such as “democracy” or “human rights,” from their local search engine results.
The decree also aims to place global Internet companies more firmly under Vietnamese law, although their servers are outside the country, with vaguely defined bans on any online postings hosted on their platforms that “go against the state of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, jeopardize national security or social order, damage national unity, issue war propaganda, carry out acts of terrorism, create hatred between ethnic groups, or reveal state secrets, including those related to the military, security, and foreign affairs.”
The Asia Internet Coalition, a group of multinational Internet companies including eBay, Facebook, and Google, said in a statement in response to the decree’s announcement: “We believe that the Decree will negatively affect Vietnam’s Internet ecosystem. In the long term, the Decree will stifle innovation and discourage businesses from operating in Vietnam, thereby hindering Vietnam’s goal to establish itself as an advanced competitive ICT [information and communications technology] nation.” Western governments, including the United States, also criticized the decree’s restrictive provisions.
The criticism appeared initially to put officials on the defensive, underscoring the government’s sensitivity to a potential reversal of foreign investment flows at a time of increasing economic weakness. Nguyen Thanh Huyen, head of the Ministry of Information’s Online Information Section, told Reuters that Decree 72 had been “totally misunderstood.” Said Huyen: “We never ban people from sharing information or linking news from websites. This is a normal decree which doesn’t go against any human right commitments.”
At a September 19 news conference in Denmark, which is one of Vietnam’s largest foreign donors, President Truong Tan Sang told reporters his government was in the process of developing “a better platform for the political life of the people.” In response to questions about the crackdown on bloggers, Sang acknowledged “defects” in Vietnam’s politics, but insisted that “everybody… is equal before the law” and that there were “four million free bloggers in Vietnam.”
Local bloggers believe the authorities are making preparations to eventually block Facebook and Google and replace them with local alternatives–similar to China’s efforts to assert control over its Internet by developing indigenous search engines and social media services. A Russian-Vietnamese joint venture was reported by The Associated Press in May to be developing a tool similar to Google known as “Coc Coc,” which means “Knock, Knock” in English. In a statement, Google said it welcomed the competition Coc Coc represented, according to the AP report. Local bloggers reported Nguyen Minh Triet, the son of Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung and a ranking member of the Communist Youth Union, was working to develop a local social media network to compete with, or possibly replace, Facebook.
Nguyen Anh Tuan, a legal activist who tracks local laws governing the Internet, believes the government has strong incentive to shut down Facebook as a platform for online journalism. He cites a case when local bloggers used Facebook to report news not covered in mainstream media of three children who were killed by tainted vaccines produced by a state-owned company. Follow-up investigative reports posted on blogs revealed that some 20 children had died from the same vaccine since 2010 without the government taking responsibility.
In an unprecedented online response, more than 10,000 Vietnamese social media users signed a petition on Facebook calling for the Minister of Health’s resignation over the deaths. “The government sees danger in blogs and Facebook pages that allow people to comment and trade ideas,” Tuan said. “Today they call for the resignation of the minister of health, tomorrow the prime minister or the entire Communist Party–that’s what they think. If allowed to continue it will happen. … That’s why they feel they need Decree 72 to control the Internet.”
The conviction of Dinh Nhat Uy on October 29 was the first of a blogger or dissident specifically for using Facebook, news reports said. Uy had used the social media site to campaign for his brother’s release from prison, where he is serving a four-year sentence on anti-state propaganda charges.
Many independent bloggers are motivated by a sense of injustice in Vietnamese society and the mainstream media’s persistent failure to report on issues of import.Thang says he left a career in government service to become a full-time blogger in protest of rampant bribery and embezzlement of state funds at the civil engineering agency where he worked. “Local officials cooperated with private property developers to evict farmers and degrade the environment,” said Thang, recounting his days as a civil servant. “I couldn’t bear it, so I left my job.”
Since 2007, Thang says, he has specialized in reporting and filming cases of villagers’ being evicted from their lands to make way for state or state-linked development projects. This is a politically sensitive topic that pits grassroots people against the power of the party and is often censored or slanted in favor of the state in mainstream media coverage. Thang says he has also made several undercover visits to prisons and re-education camps to gather information and report on the condition of imprisoned political dissidents and fellow bloggers.
Bloggers in Vietnam support themselves financially in a variety of ways. Some work as registered journalists for government media and moonlight anonymously as bloggers; others contribute paid pieces to collective dissident blogs hosted outside Vietnam; still others rely on private businesses or property to support their blogging.
Thang is at the forefront of a movement that aims to train young bloggers at underground locations how to report safely in a hostile environment. Because independent bloggers lack proper press credentials, they often must blend in with the crowd at news events. One tactic he advises for protecting sensitive film footage: Thang always keeps a pocket full of decoy memory cards and frequently changes his active card, which he hands off to fellow undercover bloggers to spirit away in case of being abruptly searched or detained by the police or plainclothes officials.
As government harassment and threats against bloggers have intensified, Thang said, he has come under pressure from his family members to cease blogging. He believes the only reason he has avoided prison on trumped-up anti-state charges is because his uncle is a high-ranking member of the Communist Party-dominated National Assembly. Thang says he titled his blog “Man without a family name” in overt rejection of his family’s Communist Party links.
The imprisonment and harsh harassment of certain critical bloggers while others are treated more leniently has often stoked suspicions of state infiltration of underground blogging communities. But as the number of imprisoned and physically abused bloggers continues to rise, there are new signs of unity among bloggers who share a common cause in fighting back against the government’s use of draconian anti-state laws to silence their voices.
In June, a group of bloggers started an online petition calling for the repeal of Article 258, a vague and arbitrary law that bans “abusing democratic freedoms.” The call was in response to the arrests of two bloggers under the law’s provision against “abusing democratic freedoms” as well as government suppression of bloggers who tried to cover or participate in “human rights picnics” organized in several Vietnamese cities in May. More than 100 Vietnamese bloggers signed the petition with their real names and blog URLs, including several anonymous and pseudonymous bloggers who revealed their true identities for the first time.
Bloggers who spearheaded the campaign submitted the signed petition on July 31 to the United Nations’ Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Bangkok, an appeal that they hoped would block Vietnam’s bid for a rotational seat on the U.N. Human Rights Council beginning in 2014. In mid-November, Vietnam was nonetheless awarded a seat on the council. Underscoring the risk of challenging state authority, Pham Doang Trang, one of the bloggers behind the petition, said government agents posted threatening messages about her over social media on the day she met with the U.N. representatives. Two other bloggers, Phuong Dun and Thao Chi, were briefly detained by the authorities on August 5 upon their return to Hanoi from Bangkok.
“The higher profile we are, the more dangerous it is,” Trang said in an interview with CPJ soon after handing the petition to the U.N. Trang, who has lived outside Vietnam since January 2013, said the authorities frequently question her family about her whereabouts while neighborhood friends have been recruited by state agents to inform on her. “It’s a type of psychological warfare, pressuring relatives and friends. These are the risks all Vietnamese bloggers face for being too vocal.”
Shawn W. Crispin is CPJ’s senior Southeast Asia representative. He is the author of CPJ’s 2012 report, “Vietnam’s Press Freedom Shrinks Despite Open Economy.”