Neither side gives way

Freedom of expression remains in a serious situation in Vietnam, as the government struggles to control online communication in the country in the same way that mainstream media remains under its thumb. Government has over the years taken both online and physical measures to ensure than criticism of the state and the Vietnamese Communist Party remains under control.

The past year is no different from previous years – as bloggers and social media activists continue to be arrested and sentenced for public expression of their opinion and relaying information on taboo topics concerning politics and government.

A few releases

A number of prominent prisoners of conscience in Vietnam were released in 2014, prompting obervers to speculate about the reason behind these concessions. Among those released was “prisoner of century” Nguyen Huu Cau, who has served 20 of his 37 years prison sentence for “anti-revolutionary” activities. Cau was released on March 22 under an unexpected amnesty signed by the President.

Earlier, teacher Dinh Dang Dinh, a blogger widely known for opposing the controversial bauxite mining project in the Central Highlands, was also given amnesty and released halfway through his six-year imprisonment. Dinh was diagnosed with cancer during his imprisonment, and died in early April, less than one month after his release. Approximately 2,000 people went to his funeral despite heavy police presence. Plainclothes police tore away commemoration banners from floral tributes for Dinh Dang Dinh.

Three other prominent prisoners of conscience, Dr Cu Huy Ha Vu, dissidents Nguyen Tien Trung and Vi Duc Hoi, were released in April. Cu Huy Ha Vu flied directly from prison to the United States, which gave rise to speculations that the government action may have been in exchange for some economic and political gains, given the ongoing Trans- Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement negotiations. Rumors about the government exchanging prisoners of conscience for benefits spread, and the release of prominent labor activist Do Thi Minh Hanh in June reinforced these rumors.

Significantly, Nguyen Van Hai who is perhaps the most well known imprisoned blogger in Vietnam, was set free on 21 October. Van Hai, popularly known by his pen name as “Dieu Cay” (Peasant’s Pipe), was sentenced to 12 years of imprisonment in September 2012. He was escorted by the police directly to the airport to fly immediately to the United States. Dieu Cay later explained that he was given no choice but to leave Vietnam.

A few arrests

Signals of concessions from high profile releases are canceled out by ongoing arrests of well-known bloggers in Vietnam. One of them was Nguyen Huu Vinh (also known as Anh Ba Sam), founder and webmaster of the leading political Vietnamese blog Thong Tan Xa Via He (Sidewalk Café News Agency), known for criticizing the government’s pro-China policies. He was arrested on May 5, three days after China positioned the huge oilrig Haiyang Shiyou 981 in waters off the disputed Paracel Islands.

Tensions between China and Vietnam over sovereignty issues in the South China Sea flared up again right after the oil rig deployment. Because Anh Ba Sam’s blog had always been a rallying point for anti-China protestors, it is believed that Nguyen Huu Vinh was arrested by the pro-China faction in the government. He and his assistant, Ms Nguyen Thi Minh Thuy, were arrested on the same day and charged under Article 258 of the Penal Code for “abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon the State’s interests.” According to police, Vinh and Thuy were accused of running two “anti-state” websites of Dan Quyen (Citizens’ Rights) and Chep Su Viet (Writing Vietnamese History), though curiously not because of the more prominent Thong Tan Xa Via He, which had a readership in the hundreds of thousands.

Following their arrest, twenty unregistered civil society organizations put out a joint statement opposing Vinh and Thuy’s arrests and called for an anti-China protest rally. When the protests broke out in both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City on May 11, protestors outnumbered by pro-government “public opinion shapers”, who are mostly members of the Communist Youth Union.

Nguyen Huu Vinh and Nguyen Thi Minh Thuy are still in jail awaiting trial, although their defense lawyers say that no evidence against Vinh and Thuy was found and expect the duo to be released.

Police also arrested professor Hong Le Tho (a.k.a. Nguoi Lot Gach – the Paver) on November 29, and famous novelist and blogger Nguyen Quang Lap (a.k.a. Bo Lap) one week later. The arrests stunned the political bloggers in Vietnam, especially the circle of pro-democracy intellectuals whom the two stayed in close contact with. Both were released after a few months, with signals that they had agreed remain silent upon their release.

Facebook becomes a battle ground

Around mid-June 2014, the government’s efforts to silence dissident opinions turned to a new tactic in Facebook where supporters use the social network’s “report abuse” feature, which request administrators to shut down accounts or pages.

Pro-government cyber trolls – commentators who are usually paid to support the government in online forums – sent numerous fake reports against alleged “hate speech” and “inappropriate content” that resulted in dozens of Facebook accounts and pages shut down in the last two weeks of June.

An article published on The Verge noted,

“This isn’t the first time activists have run into trouble on Facebook. Despite the service’s much-feted role in the Arab Spring, it’s also been a place where hostile regimes and their supporters can chase down opposition figures, whether it’s Assad-friendly hackers in Syria or Putin-friendly trolls in Russia. But Vietnam is the first place where Facebook’s own policies have been singled out for enabling attacks — in particular, the service’s “Report Abuse” button, which is used to flag content that’s hostile or inappropriate. The button is designed to protect Facebook users from the same threats and abuse that often run rampant on Twitter and Tumblr, but as the raid shows, that protection can also be used as a tool for stifling dissent.” [i]

The government’s cyber troops are known through online groups under such names that translate as “The association of those who hate anti-state gangs”, “The self-defense forces of the Vietnamese Army”, etc. These groups produce slanderous information and hate speech against human rights activists and democracy supporters, especially those they consider famous and influential. In addition, they make continuous calls to the public to “collectively report” human rights and democracy pages.

A group whose name translates as “The historic stupid ideas by the anti-communist alliance in the 21st century” issued such a call,

“All the army forces inside and outside the barracks, assemble. Read our command carefully before our sortie: Don’t comment. Don’t like. Don’t argue. Just report them. Zero hour has come. Target: quick attack. At least 140 reports for each of them. Each of us shall report at least three times for each of them. More is encouraged… In general we just need to say “abusive contents” for inciting ethnicities, and it is done.”

The shutdowns of Facebook accounts only decreased after Vietnamese human rights activists met with Facebook officials to expose the tactic.

On the other hand, the Ministry of Public Security still wanted to take more advantage of the enormous audience that Facebook has in Vietnam. Since January 2015, Facebook pages and websites aimed at defaming democracy activists, especially well-known bloggers, began to appear. Some of such pages even published private photos of some female activists.

Offline attacks

The “war” against Vietnam’s bloggers and social media activists also manifests in the real world. Very often political bloggers in Vietnam are subject to intimidation by police-sponsored “public opinion shapers.” Sometimes, the threats were carried out as human rights activists have become victims of physical assaults by thugs and plainclothes police. In May, familiar-looking thugs assaulted Tran Thi Nga (a.k.a. Thuy Nga) and her two small sons, breaking her arm and leg.

Only recently on 22 April 2015, blogger Trinh Anh Tuan (a.k.a. Gio Lang Thang, The Wandering Wind), a Hanoi-based environmental activist was brutally attacked by men believed to be plainclothes agents. This was the second time Tuan was attacked. In late March last year, he was also brutally beaten after participating in a meeting of Hanoi-based members of the Vietnamese Blogger Network, a social network which fights for freedom of expression.

Beyond street protests

On 4 July 2014, freelance journalists launched the Independent Journalists Association of Vietnam (IJAVN) to promote freely reported and politically independent information. The launch was hailed by international press freedom group Reporters Without Borders (RSF), saying “This association’s creation is excellent news for freedom of information in Vietnam.”

Among its other objectives, IJAVN also aims to “Criticize the state’s irrational policies regarding social management and media freedom.”

Via Facebook, bloggers in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, and other parts of the country, often come together to work on a large number of issues, ranging from cases of people wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death, to human rights lawyers who were denied access to their clients, to land-lost farmers and victims of police brutality.

For example, 158 Vietnamese netizens came together in support of Vo An Don, a human rights lawyer whose counseling license authorities were seeking to revoke. Don was being accused of “having many articles, interviews and comments published on social media networks and domestic and international fora, in which he provided a lot of misleading information and unlawful opinions that fail to fulfill lawyers’ social responsibilities.”

Outlook

It is difficult to arrive at a conclusion to clearly say whether the situation on freedom of expression in Vietnam has improved or deteriorated. The same general pattern of suppression and resistance continues, as both sides attempt to adapt to challenges posed by the other in the context of the rapidly changing media landscape.

In January this year, Vietnam Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung reportedly told officials in his office that “It’s impossible to ban” social media. He even advised colleagues to “give correct and timely information to guide opinion. Regardless of what is being said on the Internet, people will believe when there is official information from the government.”

His statement may signal a new approach to the challenges faced by government to stem the burgeoning pro-democracy struggle online. Realistically, Vietnam has to face the fact that meeting the government’s goals of economic development requires an open internet to stimulate competition and guarantee free flow of information. As more and more citizens go online and internet access becomes more ubiquitous, online activity will be more difficult to monitor and control.

Upcoming in 2016 is National Congress of the Vietnam Communist Party. Traditionally, the period preceding this meeting is normally difficult for pro-democracy and human rights activists, who experience stricter measures for control. Unfortunately, this also means arrests, intimidation, and attacks. However, to continue doing so means that the government is breaking the rules – not only concerning international standards but also domestic guarantees for all its citizens.