Vietnam's imperiled bloggers

Since the reunification of North and South in 1975, the Communist Party has ruled Vietnam – and state’s control over the media is near-absolute.

However, Vietnam’s bloggers are putting that control to the test. They’ve been challenging mainstream media outlets, pushing them to cover topics and issues the Communist Party has declared off limits. Blogs, messaging apps and Facebook all carry stories that would otherwise have gone untold. The bloggers are finding a ready-made audience. There are more people online in Vietnam than any other country in Southeast Asia.

Bloggers have also attracted the attention, and ire, of the authorities. Facing a mix of old laws and new ones, intimidation and closed trials, many have been disciplined, silenced and put away. Last year alone, 18 bloggers and activists were jailed.

So how does the state control the media?

“Actually, there is no pre-publication censorship, rather we have a model of self-censorship,” explains Tran Le Thuy, director of the Centre for Media Education and Consultancy.

“The editors-in-chief of all media outlets are members of the Communist Party and are appointed by the state governing body. They are responsible for content control. The Ministry of Information and Communications does give directions on what news should be delivered and how, but these are not rigid directions and sometimes media agencies can negotiate with the state.”

Over the past decade, Vietnam has seen a dramatic increase in numbers of internet users. More than half of the country’s 90 million people are online, many accessing the web through their phones and one in three Vietnamese is on Facebook.

Political blogging, however, is a dangerous activity.

Nguyen Van Hai was among the first bloggers in Vietnam. He wrote under the name Dieu Cay and soon after he began posting political content, he came under official scrutiny. After threats, intimidation, a show trial and six years in jail, he was eventually expelled and now lives in exile in the United States.

“I started blogging around 2006, posting photos of my trips across Vietnam,” Nguyen told Al Jazeera.

“During my travels, I saw a lot of poverty, corruption and how local officials abused their power. So on my blog, I shared some of my political views with my friends. We discussed topics relevant to our country’s problems.”

Vietnam’s laws governing online media are numerous and vague. Control of the internet is tight, with access to many websites blocked behind what has come to be known as the “Bamboo Firewall”. Online content is closely monitored for postings on redline topics.

“Sensitive issues according to the state include the treatment of detainees by the police,” says Nguyen.

“For example, when police beat people to death in police stations. These stories would be absolutely prohibited. Also, cases of coercion when the state is taking land from farmers and they protest. Such information could only reach the people through bloggers willing to write about such matters.”

Many of Vietnam’s bloggers now write on Facebook and the authorities have followed them there. The government switches the social media site on and off at will. In May this year, Facebook’s head of Global Policy Management met Vietnam’s minister of information and communications. They reached an agreement for Facebook to coordinate with Vietnamese officials to limit “illegal and offensive” material. For Vietnam’s bloggers, the net is tightening.

“The problem is that as independent bloggers have gained prominence, the state has struck back and increasingly where you probably had a much more vigorous blogging environment in say 2009, 2010 when the authorities were still a bit slow on the uptake. Over the last six or seven years, there’s been this vigorous campaign to harass, to surveil and in instances jail some of these independent voices,” says Shawn Crispin, senior Southeast Asia representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Tran Le Thuy, director, Centre for Media Education and Consultancy
Shawn Crispin, senior Southeast Asia representative, Committee to Protect Journalists
Nguyen Van Hai, exiled Vietnamese blogger
Anonymous Vietnamese political blogger

Source: Al Jazeera News