Vietnam’s Internet Dilemma: Online Censorship

By Marwaan Macan Markar 20 March 2013

BANGKOK — Another name has been added to the growing list of Vietnamese bloggers accused of crossing a red line in the communist-ruled country, where the guardians of the one-party state brook no criticism that challenges its supremacy.

The latest victim is Nguyen Dac Kien, a journalist at the state-run Family and Society newspaper. He was fired from the publication recently following a critical post targeting Nguyen Phu Trong, the powerful general-secretary of the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP), which he uploaded on his blog.

Kien’s political comment followed a nationally televised speech that Trong had delivered, reprimanding a growing chorus of outspoken critics, including a petition signed by 72 academics, calling for a multi-party political system and a greater respect for human rights.

In justifying the firing of Kien, his newspaper said that the blog post, which questioned the right of Trong to rebuke the critics of the VCP, had “violated the operating rules,” according to Voice of America, the US government-funded broadcaster. “It warned he will be ‘held accountable before the law for his words and behavior’.”

The timing of this nod towards censorship brings to sharp relief the dilemma that the Vietnamese authorities are grappling with as they proceed with a rare political exercise: solicit public opinions ahead of amending the Southeast Asian nation’s constitution — the first such changes to the charter in over 20 years.

After all, the government has also turned to the Internet since the beginning of this year to seek feedback from citizens. These carefully stage-managed online discussions have been hosted on official websites. They are expected to run till March 31, the deadline for the public consultations aimed at taking this country further down the road of modernization.

The planned amendments this year — the fifth such occasion since the constitution was first approved in 1946 — places greater emphasis on political themes, hinting at possible reforms impacting the executive, legislature and judiciary, in a thrust to drive home the message that “the people are the masters,” Vietnam News, a government mouthpiece, has reported.

By contrast, the slew of amendments that was approved by the Seventh National Party Congress in 1991set its sights on economic reforms. Hanoi had wanted the country to shed its image of being a predominantly agrarian society with a centrally planned economy, and take tentative steps to becoming a modern industrialized society that embraced a free-market economy.

But the Internet was not a feature of the political landscape then, as it is now. And it’s little wonder that cyberspace has now become fertile ground for commentary about political reform on personal websites, blogs, Facebook and even in e-mails sent to the online media considered “more progressive,” given their reportage exposing corruption.

“A large percentage of the comments [by the public] are about Article Four,” says Hoang Thuy Chung, a journalist at VietNamNet, a news website. “The next thing is human rights and citizens rights.”

Article Four in the current constitution ensures the political monopoly enjoyed by the VCP. And when used together with two other legal weapons a climate of censorship becomes pervasive. They are Articles 79 and 88 of the Criminal Code, with the former targeting activities deemed as attempts to “overthrow the people’s administration” and the latter coming down hard on citizens accused of “propaganda against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.”

Trenchant critics of Hanoi living in exile drew attention to these legal weapons when they made submissions this month at the annual sessions of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva.

“Vietnam does not only use violence and police coercion, but also invokes a host of broadly-interpreted laws to suppress freedom of expression,” argued Vo Van Ai, president of the Vietnam Committee on Human Rights, a Paris-based Vietnamese exile lobby. “Article 88 on ‘anti-Socialist propaganda’ or Article 258 on ‘abusing democratic freedoms to encroach on the interests of the state’ are routinely used to detain cyber-dissidents.”

And the jails affirm this repressive climate, with Vietnam being ranked as the second worst country for imprisoning online commentators after China. The last 12 months has seen 22 bloggers and netizens imprisoned with severe sentences, including a group of 14 who were judged guilty in January in one-sided political trials. The harshest punishments targeted Ho Duc Hoa, Dang Xuan Dieu and Paulus Le Son, who received 13 years in prison and five years under house arrest each.

Even names associated with stalwarts of the VCP have not been spared, given the jailing of Cu Huy Ha Vu, one of the country’s leading legal activists and a son of a national poet who was a close confidant of independence hero Ho Chi Minh, for his outspokenness about the ruling party.

And as last year revealed, Hanoi’s push to spread the use of the Internet across the country — where more than 31 million of its 91 million people are online — has also meant this communication platform being exploited by government and party insiders to expose rifts within the VCP. Such infighting targeted the three main factions that call the shots: Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung’s loyalists, President Truong Tan Sang’s wing and the group headed by Trong, the party’s general-secretary.

A website launched in 2012 that enraged some in the VCP’s hierarchy was called “Quan Lam Bao” (Officials Doing Journalism). Its revelation in tabloid-style narratives targeted senior political figures about the love lives, links to corruption and even had posts calling Dung “a dictator.”

Another website that has emerged — even though it runs critical commentary — is the popular Bauxite Vietnam, whose writers range from respected intellectuals, VCP veterans, scientists and journalists. They have not shied away from sensitive topics like land rights, human rights and the tensions between Vietnam’s relationship and with its northern neighbor China.

Such a lack of uniformity in enforcing censorship stems the dilemma Hanoi faces after it decided a decade ago that it wanted the country to be one of the most online connected countries in Southeast Asia. “Vietnam authorities then developed the Internet without thinking that they would be overwhelmed by a flood of critics on the web,” notes Vo Tran Nhat, executive secretary of Action for Democracy in Vietnam, a Paris-based Vietnamese exile group. “The people found on the Internet information they could not find in the official press.”

Hanoi’s tough reaction to a politically aware public followed, first as arbitrary arrests and “administrative detentions,” before the harsh crackdowns launched in 2010.

“After 2010 there has been an escalation of repression of bloggers,” Nhat said. “The problem is that for a couple of years bloggers and other people in Vietnam got used to speaking freely on the Internet and to investigate and expose the real face of the regime. That is a real danger for the power of the Party.”