Report: Dozens detained, jailed in crackdown on Vietnam bloggers

LAtimesBy Emily Alpert – February 12, 2013, 4:46 p.m.

Nguyen Hoang Vi was knocked from her motorcycle in an accident she believes was no accident. The windows of a car she was riding in were smashed nine months later, gashing her arms, legs and face, she told activists. Last spring her passport was taken away, rights groups say.

Then, in December, police arrested and stripped her, saying she was hiding “illegal exhibits” inside her body, she alleged. State nurses forcibly searched her as she screamed for help, she said.

She was targeted, human rights activists claim, for blogging.

In Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, almost all teens and young adults go  online, market researchers say, making the Internet a new fact of life. Millions of blogs have popped up in the last eight years. The social media analysis company Quintly found that, over the course of a  year, Vietnam had the fastest growth in Facebook users in the world.

But as Internet access has exploded in Vietnam, so has a government crackdown on Internet users, activists say. A new report from the International Federation for Human Rights and the Vietnam Committee on Human Rights tallied more than 30 people imprisoned or awaiting trial for peacefully using the Internet, many jailed for years for blogging about corruption and other touchy topics.

A dozen more bloggers are under house arrest; others like Nguyen are routinely harassed and threatened, the report asserts. The Vietnamese Embassy in the United States and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not respond to repeated emailed requests over several days seeking comment on the concerns. Phone calls to the embassy weren’t answered Tuesday because the office was closed for Lunar New Year.

The Vietnamese government has defended its charges against bloggers, saying lawbreakers are punished in accordance with “international human rights law.” State news media have reported that bloggers named in the new report “distorted the truth” about Vietnamese institutions and slandered its leaders.

Activists say the communist country is following in the digital footsteps of China, plugging Internet access as a key to economic success but  monitoring what people see and punishing criticism of the state.Sweeping laws allow Internet users to be punished for “propaganda” and “undermining national solidarity,” and even taken to court over reader comments, according to the new report.  One blogger complained that writing about one of her dreams was deemed “slanderous.”

“So the state even controls our dreams. The people are only allowed to dream what the state tells them to!” Ta Phong Tan wrote nearly two years ago, according to the report. She was sentenced in September to a decade in prison, convicted along with two other bloggers of propagandizing against the state.

Vietnam is so sensitive to dissent that it has even cracked down on seemingly patriotic causes, belatedly suppressing protests against Chinese claims to islands that Vietnam claims as its own. The government is also drafting new decrees imposing steep fees for Internet postings “inconsistent with the interests of the state or inconsistent with Vietnam’s fine customs and traditions,” the rights groups’ report says.

Yet bloggers continue to pipe up. Viral videos of police forcing farmers from their land prompted Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung to address the issue. Outraged bloggers prodded police to admit they had detained a 20-year-old student accused of disseminating “anti-state propaganda,” the report says.

An  anonymous blog called Danlambao, which regularly skewers the prime minister, even survived an attempted “gag order” banning government and party officials from reading the website, firing back with a defiant statement that it says lured even more readers.

“Danlambao will not succumb to any state order aimed at silencing us,” it asserted. “No government or political party has the right to choose for the people what information they can read, hear or exchange.”

The blog stayed up. Meanwhile, the leader of the Communist Party of Vietnam made a rare apology for corruption in its ranks, a problem that the bloggers had focused on.

The crackdown on bloggers is “definitely backfiring,” said Penelope Faulkner, vice president of the Vietnam Committee on Human Rights. “This is why Hanoi is worried: They have been promoting Internet access for trade, now they fear they have unleashed something they can’t control.”

Despite the arrests, “the attempts to censor it are just farcical,” said Carl Thayer, professor emeritus at Australia’s  University of New South Wales Canberra. “It’s their daily newspaper.”

As scoops show up online, the blogosphere has evolved from an insider forum for dissidents to a popular alternative to the news press, experts say. Journalists tired of the lengthy process to clear articles are going straight to the Internet. Former officials with “revolutionary credentials” now appear to be leaking information to further their own agendas within the divided party, one reason that some critical bloggers may have escaped punishment even as others languish in jail, experts say.

“The ones who were arrested were younger guys at Internet cafes,” said Edmund Malesky, associate professor of political science at Duke University. “It looks like it was easier. Those weren’t the most dangerous blogs,  and everyone knew that.”

In a sign of its importance, the state has even admitted enlisting hundreds of its own bloggers to make their case, the BBC reported last month. “On the one hand, they hate social media because it is out of their control,” said Alexander Vuving, an associate professor at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies. “But at the same time, they use it.”

Experts are divided over whether the blogs are spurring the government to be more responsive or are just a reflection of the economic woes and infighting already pressuring the state.

“It has, without question, expanded the scope of political discourse in Vietnam and significantly ratcheted up pressure on the state, which is increasingly viewed as corrupt and unaccountable,” said Jonathan London, an assistant professor at City University of Hong Kong.

Still, he said, “its longer term effects on politics remain uncertain.”

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