ASEAN challenge to Vietnam

Vietnam’s attitude and actions towards its media and citizens takes on additional significance in 2010, as the country assumes the chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) this year.

The influence of its example will not only emanate from the symbolism of heading the regional organization, but from the tone it will set for the newly formed ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights.

For these reasons, Vietnam will find its human rights record magnified regionally and internationally. How it responds to and receives the attention—no doubt as well from its own citizens, whether inside the country or from exile—will be crucial to see.

If 2009 is anything to go by, Vietnam can be predictable in cracking down on dissent and criticism, or it could potentially surprise, particularly in the realm of loosening rules on access to information.

On the one hand, Vietnam got some credit in 2009 for opening discussions about its own policies for controlling information, and for possibly updating such policies to allow for greater flow and access to information. On the other hand, the government last year came down hard on a number of critics, writers, and—in the most prominent case—even a lawyer that few actually qualified as a dissident. Lawyer Le Cong Dinh, despite a reputation for letting his progressive ideals work and struggle from within the Vietnamese constitution and system, was charged in December with the capital crime of subversion, no less. On 20 January 2010, he was found guilty and was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment, sending a chilling signal not only to the writers and bloggers he famously and stubbornly represented, but to the legal community in general.

The prison sentence imposed on Dinh—and the Vietnamese government’s continuing efforts to silence critics especially in the Internet—augurs ill for free expression in the country in 2010. Nothing illustrates the risks and defenselessness of writers and commentators in Vietnam as the conviction of what used to be one of their most high profile and effective defenders.

Dinh himself, of course, was far from being the only free speech advocate arrested in Vietnam last year.

“No politics in blogs”
A crackdown on bloggers that started in 2008 determined the fate of many in 2009. In December 2008, the government issued new regulations prohibiting blogs from disseminating or linking to content that opposes the government, undermines national security and social order, or reveals state secrets. Blogs, declared Vietnam’s deputy minister of information and communication, Do Quy Doan, should be limited to personal content and refrain from posting articles or opinions regarding politics, religion, and social issues. Consequently, at least 12 Vietnamese bloggers were arrested in 2009.

The tension will not likely abate in 2010. With nearly 22 million Internet users in a country of 84 million, Vietnam will remain caught between the inevitability of new media and its own archaic laws. Human Rights Watch quotes Vietnamese government reports in noting that there are more than 1 million blogs in and about Vietnam—mostly innocuous but collectively nonetheless betraying the state’s inability to completely manage news and information.

Centralized control
The government has several ways of controlling Internet use, including monitoring online activity, harassing and arresting cyber-dissidents, and blocking websites of democracy and human rights groups, opposition political parties, and independent media based in Vietnam and abroad.

Aside from these, Internet service providers and Internet cafe owners are required to obtain photo identification from Internet users, and to monitor and store information about their online activities.

The Vietnamese government also uses certain laws to go after what it perceives are dissidents. Chief among this is Article 88 of the penal code, which criminalizes peaceful dissent, interpreting it as anti-government activities. Vietnam has repeatedly refused to revise or repeal this provision—which carries up to a 20-year prison term—despite a review of its rights record in May 2009 by the UN Human Rights Council (HRC).

In late August and early September 2009, four bloggers were arrested, detained for several days and later released by the police.

First to be arrested, on 27 August 2009, was blogger Bui Thanh Hieu. The following day, online journalist Pham Doan Trang was nabbed. Both were accused of criticizing the ruling Communist Party’s policies towards China.

Both Hieu and Trang were released more than a week later.

Blogger Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh was also arrested on 28 August, accused of “abusing democratic freedoms to infringe on the interests of the state”, and was released only on mid-September, after authorities extracted a promise from her to stop posting on her blogs.

Another Vietnamese blogger who wrote under the pen name “Sphinx” was detained by authorities on August 29 and released four days later.

In their blogs, Quynh and the “Sphinx’s” criticized Vietnam-China relations.

In early October 2009, a Vietnamese court sentenced eight bloggers to varying prison sentences on charges of anti-government propaganda, a violation of Article 88 of the Criminal Code.

Vu Hung was sentenced on 7 October in Hanoi to three years in prison. Pham Van Troi got a four-year sentence the next day.

On October 9, the six other bloggers were given jail sentences on the same charges in Haiphong. Nguyen Xuan Nghia, who is also a writer, got six years. Nguyen Van Tinh and Nguyen Manh Son got three and a half years each. Nguyen Van Tuc got four years. Ngo Quynh got three years and Nguyen Kim Nhan, two years.

Article 88 of the criminal code forbids all “propaganda against the Communist system of government” as well as “slanderous allegations undermining national security, the social order and the people’s trust in the Party.”

Political pluralism
In their offending posts, the bloggers had called for more political pluralism and democracy and respect for human rights. They also criticized the Vietnamese authorities’ soft stance on China’s territorial claims over the Paracel and Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.

Aside from bloggers, journalists working for government-controlled newspapers also found themselves in hot water.

The editors of two leading Vietnamese newspapers were fired on January 2, 2009 for taking the cudgels of two of their colleagues who had been arrested earlier.

Nguyen Cong Khe, editor of “Thanh Nien” (“Young People”), and Le Hoang, editor of “Tuoi Tre” (“Youth”), were dismissed from their jobs.

On 25 August 2009, reporter Huy Duc was dismissed from the government daily, “Sai Gon Tiep Thi” for posting criticism of the Cold War-era Soviet Union on his personal blog.

Well-known novelist and journalist Nguyen Xuan Nghia, 60. A recipient of the prestigious Hellman/Hammett writers’ award in 2008, was charged along with five other dissidents, of violating Article 88 of Vietnam’s penal code, also known as “conducting anti-government propaganda”. The violation, once proven, carries a 12-year prison term.

Nghia was charged of of having written  57 pieces of literary work Nghia from 2007 until his arrest in 2008, including poetry, literature, short stories and articles, whose purpose, the report alleged, was to “insult the Communist Party of Vietnam, distort the situation of the country, slander and disgrace the country’s leaders, demand a pluralistic and multiparty system . . . and incite and attract other people into the opposition movement.”

And as Le Cong Dinh illustrates, journalists and bloggers are not the only one in the long list of dissidents the Vietnamese government is after. Media lawyers are themselves targets.

Le Cong Dinh
Initially charged of violating Article 88 of the Vietnam Criminal Code, which provides up to 20 years’ imprisonment if proven guilty of spreading propaganda, Dinh was later charged with committing sedition against the government. He was convicted of sedition early this year and was sentenced to a five-year prison term followed by a three-year house arrest.

A push for access to information—sincere?
It is in the context of its actions in 2009 that people are questioning Vietnam’s roles and commitments for 2010. Its chairmanship of ASEAN, and it consequent leadership of the AICHR, as already noted, are subjects of dread by rights advocates around the region.

Within the country itself, meanwhile, Vietnam’s attacks on free speech advocates last year can only raise questions about its stated intentions to allow people greater access to information in the country.

The government of Vietnam made a commitment at the start of 2009 to put in place a right to information law by 2010. It appointed a team led by the Vietnamese Ministry of Justice, and even tapped London-based Article 19 to critique and analyze its draft legislation. The government hopes to submit the draft law to the National Assembly in May 2010.

“Now is a critical time to discuss access to information because Vietnam is about to transit from a low-income to a middle-income country,” said Ms Setsuko Yamazaki, UNDP Country Director, in the opening remarks to a roundtable discussion on the initiative late last year. “Certainly the current process of drafting and discussing a draft Access to Information Law in Vietnam can be seen as a positive indication of the goodwill and determination of the Vietnamese Government to improve transparency in the public sector.  Speeding up the drafting process would bring the benefits to society sooner rather than later.”

No doubt media stakeholders, and advocates for access to information and greater press freedom, would like to see such a law in place as soon as possible. Given Vietnam’s continuing contempt towards independent news and commentary, however, even passably reasonable rules on having access to information could be rendered academic in an environment that little tolerates the free dissemination and discussion of whatever such information may suggest or contain.