By Tim Johnston
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, January 18, 2009
BANGKOK -- Vietnam's government has issued several decrees in recent months to curtail blogging, as the number of Internet users soars in the communist country.
The campaign started in August, when the government published an edict giving police broad authority to move against online critics, including those who oppose "the State of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam" and undermine national security and social order.
The law also bans "obscenity and debauchery . . . and destroying national fine customs and traditions," according to the official gazette published -- online -- by the Ministry of Information and Communications.
Vietnam was a relative latecomer to the online age, but extraordinary economic growth in the past few years has triggered a similarly dramatic rise in Internet users. Estimates indicate that about 24 million people in the country of 88 million regularly use the Web. Internet cafes abound for those unable to afford a computer, and small shops sell pirated software to those who can.
In an environment in which information is heavily controlled by the state media, bloggers were quick to spot the possibilities that the online world offered. News about the country, much of it from foreign media outlets, and political commentary that is frequently critical of the government have become prime commodities. As a result, discussions about the country's political future, with or without the Communist Party, have flourished.
"It is an oddly intellectualized environment," Kim Ninh, the head of the Asia Foundation's office in Hanoi, said of the blogosphere. "There is a lot of mudslinging, but underneath that there is an intellectual tradition that dates back to the French colonial period in the '20s, '30s and '40s that continues to flow. They take the subject of political debate very seriously.
"People are looking to blogs for news they can't get in the mainstream media," she said.
The government's moves against blogging have provoked a sharp response from free-speech advocates. "Vietnam is one of the few countries where people can be locked up on charges of 'abusing democratic freedoms,' " Brad Adams, the Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement Thursday. "Vietnam's donors should continue to insist that the government stop its criminalization of peaceful expression."
After a period of relative freedom, when online and print journalists were testing the bounds of what they could publish, the authorities have recently started to crack down.
Late last year, the courts imposed a two-year sentence on a newspaper journalist after he ran a series of articles exposing corruption, and a prominent blogger known as Dieu Cay, whose real name is Nguyen Van Hai, was sentenced to two years in jail for tax evasion in a case widely seen as a punishment for his blogging.
Peter Leech, an Australian who set up a popular news aggregation site, Intellasia.net, in Vietnam, started having problems with the authorities in June 2007. He said that police frequently raided the Intellasia offices, that the U.S.-based server that hosted the site was attacked and that he was eventually forced to flee the country.
"They are getting much tougher on everything -- newspapers, the Internet, everything," Leech said from Perth, Australia.
The vast majority of Vietnamese bloggers use platforms created by Internet giants Yahoo and Google, and the government said it would enlist the help of those companies in policing the Internet.
"Service providers are willing to cooperate with Vietnamese agencies," Do Quy Doan, the deputy minister for information, said at a news conference late last month. "I think service providers also wish to have a clean Internet environment. I think if state agencies of Vietnam ask for cooperation, Google or Yahoo will be willing, too."
The most popular platform for Vietnamese bloggers is Yahoo 360. Yahoo said this week it had not been approached by the Vietnamese government regarding any controls.
"As a general policy, Yahoo companies, like other companies around the world, are required to comply with lawful demands from governments when the company is subject to that country's laws," the company said in a statement, pointing out that its Yahoo 360 platform is run in Singapore.
It remains to be seen how successfully the government could control the Internet. As China has demonstrated, technology exists to block unwelcome content, at least from the casual user. But unlike users in China, whose government censored the Internet from the beginning, Vietnamese users have enjoyed years of unfettered access, which they have come to regard as a right.
"If they did do something draconian," Leech said of government officials, "it would not only be a big step back, it would make the people very angry."