An anti-China protest in Vietnam in May. Bloggers who try to report on demonstrations risk being imprisoned under anti-state charges. (AFP/VNExpress)

Undercover in Vietnam: Bloggers play risky game of cat-and-mouse to report

In the first of a four-part “Undercover in Vietnam” series on press freedom in Vietnam, CPJ Southeast Asia Representative Shawn Crispin explores the risks bloggers take so they can cover news events and protests. Under near-constant surveillance and with the threat of arbitrary detention hanging over them, the desire for an independent press drives Vietnam’s bloggers to continue to write. In part two, to be published Friday, Crispin reveals the persecution faced by Redemptorist News journalists. Parts three and four will be published next week.

An anti-China protest in Vietnam in May. Bloggers who cover rallies risk being imprisoned under anti-state charges. (AFP/VNExpress)
An anti-China protest in Vietnam in May. Bloggers who cover rallies risk being imprisoned under anti-state charges. (AFP/VNExpress)

When Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh left her home in the central coastal city of Nha Trang to cover anti-China protests a 10-hour bus ride away in southern Ho Chi Minh City, the prominent blogger disguised her appearance to evade plainclothes officials stationed nearby to monitor her meetings and movements.

On the road, Quynh disembarked 10km from her ticketed destination to avoid being detained by police she feared may be waiting for her at the bus station. A friend retrieved her from outside the commercial hub and drove her by motorcycle to a fellow blogger’s house to avoid detection. The following day, while covering the protest, “I could see they were amazed to see me,” Quynh said, referring to police officials who were monitoring the crowd.

Such are the cat-and-mouse games Quynh, more popularly known by her Mother Mushroom penname, must play to meet contacts and cover important news events. While Quynh has maintained cordial relations with certain surveillance officials assigned to her, others have, in effect, confined her to periods of house arrest. Quynh has so far stayed out of prison for her blogging, but she often wonders how much longer that will be the case.

Undercover in Vietnam
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
CPJ’s recommendations

CPJ recently traveled undercover to Vietnam to meet with bloggers and journalists, and gauge the prevailing press freedom situation. In a series of four blog posts, CPJ will highlight the experiences of a few independent bloggers and online journalists who have gone for broke by reporting above ground amid a rising tide of government repression aimed at unlicensed online media outlets and blogs. The series will conclude with press freedom-promoting recommendations for the Vietnamese government and international community.

With at least 18 journalists in prison, Vietnam is one of the world’s top five worst jailers of journalists, according to CPJ research. Nearly all have been imprisoned on vague and draconian anti-state charges, including the Orwellian crime defined under Article 258 of “abusing democratic freedoms,” and the equally arbitrary Article 88 that bans “conducting propaganda against the state.” Sixteen of the 18 held behind bars have been convicted or detained specifically or in part for their online journalism, CPJ research shows.

As that oppressive tally mounts, independent bloggers and online journalists risk their liberty each time they post news or commentary that authorities may arbitrarily construe as detrimental to the Communist Party-led government’s interests. While many conceal their online identities to avoid possible government reprisals, a large number have abandoned their past anonymity to join the Network of Vietnamese Bloggers (NVB).

Quynh, a pioneer and senior member of Vietnam’s blogging movement, is a co-founder of the press freedom-promoting group. It represents the first time Vietnam’s independent journalists have banded together to call for greater freedoms since the 2007 establishment of the Free Journalists Club of Vietnam, a group that is not legally registered. The group’s three co-founders, including CPJ International Press Freedom Awardee Nguyen Van Hai, alias Dieu Cay, are all in prison on trumped up anti-state charges related to their news reporting.

Quynh began blogging in 2008, a time when Vietnamese authorities had not yet realized the power of the Internet to challenge the Communist Party-dominated state’s monopoly over the local media. Like many of the country’s independent bloggers, she was lured into blogging by the glaring lack of mainstream reporting on widespread injustice and abuse of state power in Vietnamese society.

“It was ugly what was happening in our society,” Quynh said in an interview with CPJ, citing woefully poor medical services and the government’s often conflicted and corrupt commercial ties with China as examples of the rot. “My blog asked: Why must we agree with the government on everything? Why can’t we have different opinions?”

Quynh was first arrested and interrogated on September 2, 2009, for blogging about government land confiscations related to a controversial China-backed bauxite mining project in the country’s pristine Central Highlands region. On that occasion, an estimated 15 armed public security forces raided Quynh’s house at about midnight, while she was sleeping next to her three-year-old daughter, and took the blogger away.

She was held for more than a week and was eventually released without charge. The experience failed to deter her, and she continues to blog about the sensitive issue of land-grabbing in her coastal home province of Nha Trang. She claimed in recent reports that since 2010 more than 300 villagers have been forcibly relocated from prime seaside land now under development by state-linked property firms and multinational hotel companies.

It’s the type of people-versus-government reporting that Vietnam’s state-controlled mainstream media habitually avoids. After posting a blog in February questioning the environmental impact of a new state-linked cigarette factory planned outside of Nha Trang, Quynh was called in for questioning. “They said I didn’t have enough information,” she said, recounting the police interrogation one day after her post. “I said, I wrote under my own name and if I’m wrong take me to court.”

Journalists charged with anti-state crimes seldom, if ever, prevail in Vietnam’s politically pliable courts. As international criticism of Vietnam’s consistently rigged legal process in freedom of expression cases mounts, Quynh says authorities have recently shifted their police state tactics toward more street-level intimidation and harassment.

Quynh asserts police have recently deployed more plainclothes rather than uniformed officials to track targeted journalists. That switch, she said, makes attacks against the press appear more like random acts perpetuated by anonymous thugs rather than state officials carrying out repressive policy. The same plainclothes officials have manufactured traffic accidents and made false accusations of theft against certain outspoken bloggers, she said.

“It’s now more difficult to know who’s who. Some bloggers are taken to police stations and initially have no idea why. It’s happened to me and others,” said Quynh. “It looks like there is improvement [on human rights issues] to the international community but really they are just using different tactics.”

The Vietnamese government did not respond to a CPJ request for comment about the alleged change in police tactics or, more generally, on press freedom conditions.

While Vietnam has made recent progress on women’s and children’s rights–accomplishments officials touted during a United Nations Universal Periodic Review in June–the press freedom situation is as dire as ever, according to Quynh. Case in point: on August 4, Quynh was apprehended, initially without explanation, by plainclothes officials while walking down a Nha Trang street with her infant son. Quynh was later taken to a police station and questioned by officials about articles she had posted on her Facebook page. She was released that evening, but ordered to return the following day for further questioning.

NVB is pushing back against such intimidation with calls for legal reform and more accountability for individual police officials who harass journalists. Last year, more than 130 bloggers signed an online petition calling for the repeal of Article 258, an anti-state law used increasingly to jail independent bloggers. Scores of anonymous bloggers, many of whom revealed their identities for the first time, signed the petition. As of May this year, NVB had more than 300 signatory members, though more recent members have opted to remain anonymous, according to Quynh.

Officials have started to target the network’s known members. In December, for example, authorities confiscated the passports of several NVB members, including Quynh. On December 10 last year, police destroyed a stuffed toy belonging to Quynh’s infant son, apparently on suspicion that it may have housed a hidden camera. Officials seized the toy from her son during a raid of a NVB meeting in a Ho Chi Minh City coffee shop, which was being held to discuss human rights.

While many bloggers reported on the heavy-handed incident, Quynh says she never blogs about the personal harassment and surveillance she faces to avoid unnecessary confrontation with officialdom. “For me, it’s normal. … I announce this is my opinion, that I have a right to write. I don’t attack any individual person. I just say I disagree with the Party,” said Quynh. “But if they want to arrest me, they can.”

[Reporting from Nha Trang]