Nowhere safe for Vietnamese bloggers

By Le Trung Thanh (Blacky) on May 4, 2009 3:10 PM ET

A major leap forward for freedom of expression in Vietnam has been the rise of blogs. But this development has led to growing conflicts between bloggers, government authorities, and, potentially, multinational Internet service companies.  

Initially, bloggers who cared about national issues in Vietnam got connected over the Internet. After a period of trial and challenge, many developed into commentators on political issues and started to attract large readerships.

It should be noted that many Vietnamese Internet users adapted Yahoo! Messenger short message and chat service early on. So when Yahoo! introduced its 360° Blog service, many Vietnamese signed on and this network quickly developed into a very large online community.

Popular bloggers on Yahoo 360° include Vang Anh and Cong Ly Su That, who have in their writings courageously brought to light distorted historical issues, protested against government corruption and abuse, and exposed wrongdoing inside the ruling Communist Party of Vietnam.

The unprecedented explosion of information exchange caused concern among government authorities, who strictly control Vietnam's mainstream media. In 2008, officials issued new decrees to control the Internet and stepped up harassment of prominent, critical bloggers.

Authorities last year arrested blogger Nguyen Van Hai, better known as Dieu Cay, and sentenced him to 30 months in prison on trumped-up charges of tax evasion. Many in Vietnam's blogging community believe he was really targeted for his critical entries on Vietnam-China relations.

They also harassed Ta Phong Tan and other bloggers like Anh Ba Sg, Dong A, Thien Sau, and Trang Dem, sending a signal to all bloggers that the government is closely monitoring their online writings. As a student studying in Taiwan, I've had the opportunity from abroad to freely express my views on Vietnam without the immediate risk of imprisonment.

That doesn't mean I'm entirely safe, however. Authorities working with the police have repeatedly visited my family inside Vietnam, even though they have nothing to do with my writings. They have through my family tried to pressure me to shut down my blog, which to date has attracted nearly one million page views and international media attention.

I have been a blogger since 2006 and I have twice in the last three years had to relocate my Yahoo! blog page. At first I thought I was the victim of unknown hackers, but later discovered that Yahoo had taken steps to freeze my account. I personally don't see how the political views expressed on my blog violate Yahoo!'s terms of service.

After repeated attempts to phone and e-mail Yahoo customer service, I have yet to receive a clear answer about why my blog was suspended. I believe it is worth noting that Vu Minh Tri, the head of Yahoo Southeast Asia Pte Ltd which operates the 360° blog service in Vietnam, is on record saying: "Yahoo is willing to cooperate with government agencies to ensure a clean and healthy social network."

I'd like to emphasize that blogger and Internet freedom in Vietnam is not only contingent on the government's policies, but also on the actions of multinational Internet companies such as Yahoo as well.

Blacky is the pen name of Le Trung Thanh, a Vietnamese university student based in Taiwan. His blogs include http://www.blacky2016.tk/ and http://prisonbreak1612.multiply.com/

(Reporting from Taiwan

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