Vietnam Cracks Down On The Internet And Free Expression
Doug Bernard | Washington DC
Dieu Cay knows the risks and rewards of being a blogger in Vietnam. On the risk side, he’s been tossed in and out of prison cells over the last five years, today finding himself detained once more.
His reward? He’s still among the most popular online figures in his nation.
‘Điếu cày‘ is a pen name meaning “peasant’s water pipe” in Vietnamese. The real person is Nguyen Van Hai, and he started blogging in 2007, just about the moment the Internet began spreading rapidly across the country. Unhappy about China’s policies in Tibet and the Spratly Islands, Nguyen started using his blog (now no longer viewable) to organize protests of the Beijing Olympics torch relay.
“BlogDieuCay” began quietly, but soon drew a lot of attention. Other Vietnamese citizens, unhappy with various Chinese policies, also began protesting the torch relay. Still others began speaking out online, inspired to start writing about Vietnam’s religious discrimination, land rights issues, or general corruption. In just a few months Nguyen was joined by fellow bloggers ‘AnhBa SG‘ (real name Phan Thanh Hai) and former Communist Party member Ta Phong Tan to start the “Club for Free Journalists.” Weekly viewership of their blogs skyrocketed.
That’s when authorities stepped in. In late April 2009, Nguyen was arrested on tax fraud, a charge many considered trumped up. (Phan and Ta were also arrested on unrelated crimes.) He was subsequently released and began blogging again, only to be repeatedly harassed by police. In October 2010 he was again detained by police, and has not been seen by anyone since. Officially, he’s charged with violating Article 88: “Conducting Propaganda Against the State.” Unofficially, many more call it simply “Blogging While Vietnamese.”
“Abusing Democratic Freedoms”
Nguyen isn’t alone. In just the last few months, as many as nine journalists and 33 bloggers have been jailed in what has become Vietnam’s largest ever crackdown on free speech online.
“It’s bad…it’s very bad,” says U.S. Representative Frank Wolf of Virginia. “The American ambassador (there) is a failure, the American embassy is no longer an island of freedom,” says an unsparing Wolf, condemning what he sees as an Obama administration that’s weak on human rights and freedom issues. “This administration has not done a very good job of speaking out,” says the long time rights advocate, “so these countries don’t believe that the Obama administration cares about these issues, and they feel they can do whatever they want.”
Others see a different reason for the crackdown: a government motivated less by opportunism and more by fear.
“The government is threatened by the increasing use of the Internet by Vietnamese citizens,” says Human Rights Watch’s Phil Robertson. “With the expansion of the Vietnamese language Internet, their ability to control what people are reading and seeing has definitely diminished.”
Whatever the reason, there’s no doubting that Vietnamese are moving online in droves. In 2000, less than one percent of Vietnam’s population had access to the web. Ten years later, that number had bolted to 27 percent, and it’s likely higher today. Young Vietnamese crowd into Internet cafes and snatch up the latest smart phones (over 111 million mobile phones are registered in a nation with a population of 86 million). All those eyeballs online make for a declining consumption of state-controlled newspapers and broadcasts, and that, says Robertson, has Hanoi nervous:
“When you roll in what has happened in the Arab world, that has caused a great deal of concern by the Vietnamese government. They’re worried if they don’t try to correct the problem, try to control what is going out and control some of the more prominent bloggers or people sharing information, that this situation may somehow get out of control. That’s the core of the increasing crackdown we see by the government trying to go after the more prominent people making their views known, and harassing bloggers and harassing activists; not only trying to firewall their blogs or websites, but also the more traditional harassment: police going by, inviting people out to coffees or “chats,” going in and confiscating computers or cutting people off from the Internet by terminating their phone service.”
Nervous or not, Vietnamese authorities have clearly dropped the hammer recently on the nation’s most prominent bloggers and online activists. In addition to those detained, countless more are being monitored, forced offline or have had their computers seized.
The state has a grab bag of statutes that it can charge bloggers with violating. Most popular is Article 88, but there are many others, including Article 79 – “Subversion of the People’s Administration” – or the ironically termed Article 258: “Abusing Democratic Freedoms to Infringe the Interests of the State.” Whatever allegation is used, the punishments are tough: prison sentences of five to eight years.
“Playing an Easy and Hard Game.”
Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, 32 years old, is a mother in the central coastal city of Nha Trang. She was concerned about a controversial bauxite mining project nearby, and the Chinese partner on the project Chinalco. So in 2009 she began blogging about it, sharing news items or rumors she’d heard, her objections to the project, and what others were saying about similar projects.
Nguyen knew the dangers of blogging in Vietnam, and so adopted the pen name “Me Nam” – or “Mother Mushroom” in Vietnamese. People signed an online petition, and she printed shirts reading “Stop Bauxite – No China – Keep the country safe and clean.” Her blog became a smash success. That is, until the night of September 2, 2009, when 15 police agents smashed through her door and took her under arrest.
“The police arrested and kept me at prison for 10 days,” Nguyen tells VOA in an email interview. “Their reason for my temporary imprison(ment) is ‘abusing democratic freedom infringe upon national benefits.'”
After 10 days and no charges filed, Nguyen was released, but warned about continuing her blog. Despite that, she kept writing – posting her discontents with the government and its land policies. Since then she’s had police stationed outside her home, her landlord and employer have been pressured to fire her, she’s seen her family and friends harassed, and spent more time in jail.
Mother Mushroom says she, too, has noticed a marked increase in the level of harassment directed at her and her online colleagues. “Beside Dieu Cay and AnhBa SG, many young Catholic bloggers are still in jail,” she writes.
“I think that they are warning the others have to be careful when using blog to speak out the idea about the Communist Party’s policy. Being a Vietnamese blogger, it looks like playing an easy and hard game. It will be fine if you just write about the daily simple life. However, you should be arrested at any time if you step over the ‘sensitive areas.’ I still keep writing because it made me feel free in my mind, at least. And the most important thing, we do not feel human if we don’t have the right to speak our mind.”
Nguyen is free at the moment, but acknowledges, amid the current crackdown, that she might be next to be imprisoned. Asked why “Mother Mushroom” keeps writing, she writes simply “Who will speak if you don’t?”
Fighting a Losing Battle?
“Clearly the activists recognize that they’re pushing the edge and they’re potentially facing long prison terms if they push too hard,” says Human Rights Watch’s Phil Robertson:
“But when you talk to them, they’ll say very clearly ‘Look, I’ve done nothing wrong. This is my right to speak out.’ And in fact, they’re right. Vietnam has ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which clearly contains an Article 19 guaranteeing the right to freedom of expression. So by saying ‘I’ve done nothing wrong,’ they’re not backing off on this, and the government is just forced to continue to tilt after these activists, to chase them and harass them, and ultimately is continuing to imprison them.”
Early in her term at the U.S. State Department, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called freedom of online expression a basic human right, and pledged the Obama administration would do everything possible to lift the new “digital Iron Curtain” that was falling on various nations around the world. But critics say that since then, little has been done to help, while the situation in countries like Vietnam has grown only worse.
“In the old days…everyone was singing from the same page, and that’s that we were going to advocate for human rights and religious freedom around the world no matter where it would be,” laments Congressman Wolf. “That’s really what has to be done now, but that’s the exact opposite of what’s being done today.”
With all the other foreign policy issues at stake in the U.S. presidential election this year, online freedom of speech and the persecution of Vietnamese bloggers isn’t likely to rate very high. But that’s not to say there isn’t hope.
Columbia University professor Anne Nelson recently traveled to Vietnam, and wrote of her impressions:
“We can’t underestimate the suffering — to say nothing of the nuisance — inflicted by Vietnam’s cyber-cop crackdowns. But at the same time, it appears they’re fighting a losing battle. Vietnam’s media audience is moving online rapidly, partly because they are constantly learning new techniques for outmaneuvering the authorities — and partly because the Communist Party’s traditional news media have failed to hold on to their audience and advertising base.”
As in neighboring China, Vietnam is seeking to have it both ways: expanding access to the web and wiring the nation for the future while limiting what its citizens can do and say online. It’s a tricky balance, and one technology is constantly shifting.
In the meantime, somewhere in Vietnam, Dieu Cay sits in a prison cell, awaiting his fate.