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Vietnam jails bloggers: Latest chapter in a sorry (and failed) saga of internet censorship

Vietnam jails bloggers: Latest chapter in a sorry (and failed) saga of internet censorship
Published 31 Mar 2016 

Two bloggers went on trial in Vietnam last week, charged under Section 258 of the criminal code which relates to abusing democratic freedoms. Section 258 is one of the three, somewhat elastic, sections commonly used in these cases.

They were soon sentenced, to five and three years out of a possible seven-year maximum by the Hanoi People’s Court. The United Nations, Human Rights Watch, The Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Without Borders all quickly issued condemnatory statements.

The bloggers, Nguyen Huu Vinh and his assistant Nguyen Thi Minh Thuy, were in detention for two years before the trial. Mr Vinh is the founder of news site Anh Ba Sam (Brother Gossip). Like others before him, the 59-year-old comes from good stock; his father was an official and ambassador to the Soviet Union. Mr Vinh was a police officer with the Ministry of Public Security before leaving in 1999 to start a successful private investigation company. He and Ms Thuy were charged for work on two blogs, Dan Quyen and Chep Su Viet, that were part of the ABS stable.

The trial was scheduled for mid-January but this would have clashed with the 12th National Congress and no-one wanted any obvious political theatre at what was a tricky time for Vietnamese politics. News services AFP and AP have both reported on small but sturdy demonstrations in favour of the pair. Unusually, or at least atypically, Vietnamese press has also reported on the trials and even translated the stories into English.

It would be easy to conclude that so it goes; more dissident bloggers; another trial; and more stern admonitions from human rights watchdogs. I’ve been writing on internet censorship and scandals in Vietnam for close to a decade and covered many such stories. They've ranged from Cu Huy Ha Vu’s assertion in the Washington Post two years ago that the state collected dissenters to use as bargaining chips with the US, to the self immolation of a distraught mother in front of the Bac Lieu province government office in 2012. There have been few changes in that time; freedom ebbs and flows. Right now there’s hope that Vietnam's membership of the Trans Pacific Partnership will allow greater freedom of speech.

There was that same hope 10 years ago when Vietnam was cleaning up its act prior to joining the World Trade Organisation in January 2007. In terms of the big picture, freedom of speech has not changed much over that time. The details and nuances, however, have become more interesting and that's why last week's trial deserves attention. The two are not typical dissident bloggers (though keen observers know that is a broad church). Rather, ABS (which Mr Vinh has not run since 2012) began in 2007 as a news aggregate and became a forum for commentary and insight. Its writers and readership extended well beyond hard core Vietnam dissenters. The site has been hacked several times, but commands a large readership with 100,000 hits each day.

ABS was popular for two reasons: it was good and reasoned, and it filled a gap left by local news. Vietnamese newspapers, though subject to state oversight, do not all mindlessly toe the party line but independent reporting is limited. ABS began just when the internet access exploded in Vietnam.

The story of the internet in Vietnam is an interesting one. [fold] Commentators treat the government as largely clueless, cackhanded and backward, the source of useless rules and halfhearted attempts to Facebook.Yet Vietnam’s internet usage grew so fast because of government-provided infrastructure. It turns out that while it had the hardware covered, the regime lacked insight on the cultural shifts this might engender;as it turned out, people did not just use net access for better education. Suddenly they could not only access information but provide it. Some of this was political but much was personal. In the mid-2000s, when the economy was going gangbusters, everyone also had the chance to express their thoughts and feelings to a wide, varied audience for the first time. It’s a trite parallel to make but, in the end, collectivisation didn’t stop at the farm.

By 2006 there were millions of bloggers on the now-defunct Yahoo!360 platform. In 2007 a law was introduced limiting discussion to the personal and banning the political. Yet still internet usage grew. Soap star sex scandals and other ‘social evils’ like internet gaming addiction followed.

Vietnam has one of the highest rates of internet penetration in the region. By 2012, almost 90% of urban youths over 15 accessed the net daily. My colleague David Brown wrote last year: 'The leaders of Vietnam’s Communist Party are groping for answers on whether Facebook is a mortal threat to the party’s grip on power or if it is a new opportunity to communicate with the country’s 90 million citizens.'

The other problem the government has faced is that, due to a lack of much real news and a certain cynicism, paranoid fabulations are also popular. The rumoured assassination of Defence Minister Phung Quang Thanh* in Paris, or the supposed poisoning of the former Danang mayor Nguyen Ba Thanh by Chinese agents both gained traction online. ABS tended to avoid this sort of thing.

At the same time, young people are using Facebook and other social media to protest other issues closer to home, one example would be the campaigns to stop trees being cut down in Hanoi. Civil society is expanding in Vietnam and even the less politically minded have fora to vent annoyances, or bicker over the still-present North-South divide.

Aside from dissenters' use of the internet and the regime's attempts to curtail such uses, members of the government have made some interesting appearance online. Like politicians everywhere, at times they have undermined rivals via anonymous leaks, security breaches that are that much more exciting in an opaque regime staffed by ‘grey men’.

Late last year, when the horse trading before congress was brisk, a document detailing the then Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung’s failings, and his responses, was leaked to ABS, one recent examples of a private document circulated online.

Unless the government truly believes that these ongoing arrests and trials have deterred a groundswell democracy movement, then its management of thought and opinion on the internet has not been terribly effective. Blogs and unofficial news sites have become part of Vietnam’s political landscape beyond dissent and arrest. The trial of Vinh and Thuy will not stop that.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Pierre-Sellm

*The original version of this article asserted that it was Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh, not Defence Minister Phung Quang Thanh, that was rumoured to have been assassinated. This has been corrected.

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