The 11th Vietnamese Communist Party Congress of January 2011 marked the start of a more hard-line approach on the part of the regime to its critics, and was preceded by a new, particularly harsh wave of repression aimed at those who dare to exercise their freedom of expression. A lead weight is bearing down on the country’s dissidents. There has been massive use of cyberattacks to silence dissenting opinion. Blogging has become dangerous.
The "Internet threat"
Internet use continues to spread among the population: 31% of Vietnamese are now connected. Young people are particularly keen about spending time online. Facebook users now number two million and 70% of them are 14 to 24 years old.
The blocking of Facebook, intermittent in 2009, accelerated in December 2010, to its users’ great dismay. The latter “gathered” on the social network, forming several groups. One of them, known as “A million signatures to protest Vietnamese ISPs blocking FB”, has attracted, to date, over 46,000 Internet supporters since February 2011.
Online media and blogs, mainly those hosted on Wordpress, Multiply or Blogspot, thanks to contributions from citizen journalists, have acquired a de facto status equivalent to a sort of independent private press and are having a growing impact on public opinion. Websites such as Vietnam Net and Vietnam News cover such topics as corruption, social issues and the political situation. Bloggers are carrying out actual field surveys whose results could not be published in the traditional media. Thanks to the Internet and to the debate and opinion-sharing spaces which it offers, a virtual civil society has emerged. Pro-democratic activists and critics of the government have found refuge there, which worries the authorities.
The most widely discussed topics are territorial disputes with China, corruption, disagreements over land ownership and freedom of expression – subjects which are rarely, if ever, mentioned in the traditional media. China’s bauxite mining activities and the related environmental risks are taboo, particularly because they are causing rifts within the party itself.
The filtering of Internet websites seems to have neither increased nor declined in the last few months. The majority of bloggers practice self-censorship for fear of becoming a target for the authorities. Certain bloggers have indicated that when they write on “sensitive” subjects, their posts are deleted by “third parties.”
Authorities close down websites or blogs in the open. On 5 May 2010, Gen. Vu Hai Trieu, Deputy Director of the Public Security Ministry, announced: “Our technical departments have destroyed 300 Internet web pages and blogs posting unsuitable contents.” ,
Filtering is no longer the main method used to curtail Internet freedom. The Vietnamese regime prefers to deploy cyberattacks and spyware, and to steal users’ IDs and passwords from opposition website administrators.
The authorities: Instigators of anti-freedom cyberattacks
Cyberattacks have become commonplace, most often in the form of a "Distributed Denial-of-Service" (DDoS). This is a type of cyberattack aimed at putting a site out-of-service, by submerging it with unnecessary traffic. Although over one thousand sites were affected in 2009 – twice as many as in 2008 – according to the official Vietnamese press, that figure is said to have increased ten-fold in 2010.
Among the sites targeted is the “Anhbasam” blog, well-known for its insightful content and political analyses, created by former police officer Nguyen Huu Vinh. Other targeted websites are DCV Online, bauxitevietnam.info and Doi Thoai, as well as danluan.org, danchimviet.info and danfambao.com. In late August 2010, many opposition sites and blogs were simultaneously attacked for several days, coinciding with the national holiday of 2 September. The main focus of these attacks were anti-government websites, implying that the attacks may have been orchestrated.
The government involvement argument is shared by technology sector professionals. The computer security company McAfee stated in April 2020: “We believe that the perpetrators may have political motivations and may have some allegiance to the government of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.” According to the company, a malware began circulating in December 2009. A hacker broke into the California-based Vietnamese Professionals Society’s website and replaced a Vietnamese-language keyboard programme with a malware programme, which then infected the computers of anyone who downloaded it. According to a McAfee study conducted in October 2010, domain names ending in “.com” are the most at risk and at a country level, Vietnam is now the most at risk.
American Internet giant Google has also been accusing Vietnam of carrying out cyberattacks and online surveillance to muzzle critical opinions. It claims that tens of thousands of people may have been affected. The sites targeted are said to be those which discuss the highly controversial issue of the bauxite mining being done by Chinese companies, despite activists exposing them as having a harmful impact on the environment and China’s growing influence in this strategic region. Nart Villeneuve, of Toronto University’s Citizen Lab, stated to Associated Press on 1 April 2010 that these attacks and malware programmes had made it possible to infiltrate and place under surveillance human rights activists’ websites.
Unmotivated assaults and pressure of all kinds: Rogue methods
The pressures exerted on the writers and editors of the online magazine To Quoc tightened in 2010. After being threatened, army officer Dang Van Viet asked for his name to be withdrawn from the editorial board. In early February 2010, Assistant Editor Nguyen Thuong Long and journalist Nguyen Phuong Anh were interrogated by the police. In early March, security agents told the wife and children of retired Colonel Pham Que Duong, To Quoc’s former publisher, that they would have serious problems finding work if they did not get him to stop collaborating with the magazine.
To Quoc’s founder, geologist Nguyen Thanh Giang, was recently summoned, threatened and interrogated several times in a police station. On 23 March 2010, some hoodlums broke into the home of physician Pham Hong Son, who had written articles posted on To Quoc, and threatened to splash urine and excrement in his house if he did not stop writing articles for the magazine.
Now gravely ill, Father Nguyen Van Ly, a Roman Catholic priest who had been arrested in 2007 and later sentenced to eight years in prison for his writings, was granted an early release in March 2010 and is currently under house arrest. His case will be reexamined mid-March. He has come to symbolize pro-democracy and non-violent protest against Vietnam’s single-party regime. In January 2011, public security agents prevented American diplomat Christian Marchant and Australian MP Luke Simpkins from visiting him. Christian Marchant was roughly treated and taken to a police station, which raised an official protest from the U.S. Department of State.
The government is not satisfied with mere pressure tactics. It arrests dissidents, journalists and netizens all the time.
Litany of arrests
Arrests are part of a cycle which began in 2007, intensified in 2009, and has been accelerating in the last few months. They have revealed the authorities’ increased sensitivity to dissidence during the run-up to the January 2011 Communist Party Congress. Dissidents have been paying a stiff price for the party internal disputes on topics such as the bauxite mining issue and corruption cases, topics disseminated on the Web.
Vietnam is currently the world’s second biggest prison for netizens, with seventeen detainees: Nguyen Van Tinh, Nguyen Manh Son, Nguyen Van Tuc, Ngo Quynh, Nguyen Kim Nhan, Phan Thanh Hai, Pham Van Troi, Vu Van Hung, Tran Quoc Hien, Tran Duc Thach, Truong Quoc Huy, Dieu Cay, Nguyen Tien Trung, Nguyen Xuan Nghia, Vi Duc Hoi, Le Cong Dinh and Pham Minh Hoang. In addition, three journalists – Tran Khai Thanh Thuy, Truong Minh Duc and Nguyen Van Ly – are still behind bars.
Blogger Dieu Cay, who should have been released in October 2010 after having served his two and one-half year prison sentence, is in detention, now charged with propaganda against the State and the Party by virtue of Article 88 of the Vietnamese Penal Code. Arrested in April 2008, he had been sentenced in September 2008 to two and one-half years for “tax fraud” by a Ho Chi Minh City Court. The Vietnamese authorities were actually seeking to silence this dissident, who had publicly called for people to boycott the Ho Chi Minh City leg of the Olympic torch relay on the occasion of Beijing’s 2008 Olympic Games. The blogger also had been placed under close watch since taking part, in early 2008, in demonstrations against the Chinese policy in the archipelagos of Paracels and Spratley.
Phan Thanh Hai, also known as Anh Ba Saigon, was arrested in October 2010. The police allegedly questioned him in his home and seized three of his computers. According to the blogger’s wife, the police stated that her husband – later charged with promoting “propaganda against the State” – had been arrested for spreading false information on his blog, where he had discussed topics such as maritime disputes with China and bauxite mining operations, and had actively supported Vietnamese dissidents.
Franco-Vietnamese blogger Pham Minh Hoang, arrested on 13 August 2010, was officially charged, on 20 September 2010, with “carrying out activities with the intent of overthrowing the government" by virtue of Article 79 of the Penal Code. and for having joined Viet Tan, the banned opposition party. The government accuses him of publishing on his blog (pkquoc.multiply.com) thirty opposition articles under the pen name Phan Kien Quoc. He also stands accused of organising an extra-curricular group of some forty students whom police claim he had intended to train to be future Viet Tan members. According to his wife, Le Thi Kieu Oanh, Pham Minh Hoang was arrested because of his opposition to a Chinese company’s plans to mine bauxite in central Vietnam’s high plateau region.
Netizen Nguyen Tien Trung, a pro-democracy activist, was arrested in his parents’ home on 7 July 2009 for violating Article 88 of the Penal Code. He was sentenced to a seven-year prison term in January 2010 for having “attempted to overthrow the government.
Tried together on 20 January 2010, Le Thang Long, Le Cong Dinh and Tran Huynh Duy Thuc: the first two defendants were sentenced to five, and the latter to sixteen years in prison – a judgement which was upheld on appeal on 11 May 2010. Le Cong Dinh, a well-known human rights activist who had penned numerous pro-democracy articles and defended several bloggers and freedom-of-expression activists, was arrested on 13 June 2009. He was also sentenced to three years of house arrest. Le Cong Dinh and Tran Huynh Duy were both charged with “attempting to overthrow the people’s government” and with “subversion” under Article 79 of the Vietnamese Penal Code. In January 2010 human rights activist Thang Long was given a seven-year prison sentence and placed under a three-year house arrest.
Cyberdissident Vi Duc Hoi, a former Party official, was sentenced on 26 January 2011 to an eight-year prison term and a five-year house arrest for spreading anti-government propaganda and violating the laws on national security based upon/by virtue of Article 88 of the 1999 Penal Code. His lawyer, Tran Lam, announced that he would appeal. In 2007, he had been expelled from the Party after calling for democratic reforms and posting online comments about topics which the government deemed sensitive, such as expropriations, corruption and multi-party systems. His house had been searched on 7 October 2010. Arrested officially twenty days later, he was facing up to twenty years in prison. Vi Duc Hoi is a member of Bloc 8406, a pro-democratic network.
Nguyen Dan Que, an independent journalist, was arrested in Ho Chi Minh City, in the south of the country, on 28 February for urging the population to “be inspired by the pro-democracy movements in Africa and the Middle East” and to “get rid of the communist dictatorship and to build a new, free, democratic, human and progressive Vietnam.” He was released 48 hours later on condition that he would cooperate closely with the authorities.
Le Nguyen Huong Tra, 33, better known under her blog name “Co Gai Do Long,” was released on bail in January 2011. However, the blogger remains charged with “defaming a senior Communist Party official” and his family. She is facing a possible seven-year prison term. She had been arrested on 22 October 2010, for having called the son of a political leader a “womaniser.” Deputy national criminal police chief Maj. Gen. Cao Minh Nhan stated that the blogger had been released because her “crime had been clarified.” The blogger allegedly admitted to having posted defamatory statements. Allegedly, some restrictions have been placed on her movements.
Blogger Vu Quoc Tu and his wife, blogger Trang Dem, were arrested on 1 May 2010 and prevented from leaving the country for their honeymoon. They had both participated in the January 2008 demonstration organised by blogger Dieu Cay in Saigon to oppose the Ho Chi Minh City leg of the Olympic torch relay.
Blogger Ta Phong Tan, who was arrested in April 2010, has finally been released.
The goal of these arrests is to prevent certain dissidents from pursuing their activities, and to persuade others to practice self-censorship. Since such measures do not seem to suffice, the regime adopted a new legal framework to control information.
New legal and technical restrictions
In April 2010, the Vietnamese authorities issued “Decision 15,” ordering over 4,000 cybercafés and Internet service providers in Hanoi to install a government-supplied software programme which might – like its temporarily suspended Chinese equivalent Green Dam – block access to some websites and set up surveillance of netizen activities.
New cybercafé restrictions
In August 2010, the Vietnamese authorities decided to close, by the end of 2010, all cybercafés located within a 200-metre radius of schools, in an attempt to curb online game addiction and access to “inappropriate content.” This measure allegedly concerns over 800 establishments, primarily in Saigon and Hanoi, but its enforcement has been sketchy, primarily due to economic reasons. Moreover, technical measures are expected to be implemented in order to suspend Internet links in all of the capital’s cafés from 11:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m., and all violators will be fined.
A spokesman for the Vietnam Ministry of Foreign Affairs has indicated that the authorities were trying to ensure “security and a healthy/sound use” of the Internet in public places, and rejects any accusation that this constitutes a violation of freedom of expression. The Ministry had recently denounced the growing use of the Internet and of “violent and pornographic” content.
A new decree to “regulate” journalists and bloggers
In the midst of the Communist Party Congress, the Hanoi government demonstrated its determination to tighten its grip on information by adopting, in January 2011, a new decree regulating journalists’ and bloggers’ activities. This decree, which was added to one of the world’s most repressive legislative arsenals, notably provides for fines of up to 40 million dong (2,000 U.S. dollars), in a country where the average salary consists of about 126 U.S. dollars.
The text, signed by Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, entered into effect in February 2011. The primary targets for sanctions are authors who post information which is either “unauthorised” or “not the interests of the people.” By interpreting these vague definitions broadly, the Vietnamese government will have leeway to increase the number of arrests of bloggers and journalists. The decree also provides for fines of up to 3 million dong (155 U.S. dollars) for publishing documents or letters online without revealing their sources or their own identity, and fines of 20 million dong (1,000 U.S. dollars) for publishing any documents connected with an official inquiry.
This decree attempts to apply to blogs the censorship already in force with the traditional media. It also seriously threatens the protection and confidentiality of information sources. The government is targeting online anonymity by trying to prevent bloggers from using pseudonyms, which could make it easier for the authorities to harass them, as well as to arrest and jail them.
Human rights: Non-essential?
Crackdowns tend to intensify before each Congress and then relax somewhat. This time, repression was particularly harsh and the latest legal measures taken by the government bode ill for the future. The Communist Party seems to be pursuing a policy of economic openness while maintaining an iron grip on the country’s political and social life.
Last year, Vietnam concluded its term as rotating Chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Under its presidency, the Human Rights Committee was never called into action.
Even though, in July 2010, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that she was “concerned” by the human rights situation in Vietnam, the human rights dialogue between the United States and Vietnam provided an opportunity to denounce multiple violations of freedom of expression and despite international criticism, Hanoi’s attitude has not softened. Priority is being given to the domestic political situation and to maintaining control. Stability is the key focus
The control measures taken by the authorities translate the regime’s concern over growing number of cybernauts who openly express their views online and use the Net as a means to compensate for the lack of freedom of expression in Vietnamese society. In growing numbers, they are demanding the right to express their opinions without being harassed by public security officers. Out of a sense of solidarity, Vietnamese bloggers chose the day when Dieu Cay was expected to be released from prison, 19 October 2010, to set up a non-official “Blogger Day”. They circulated an open letter so that everyone could pressure authorities to demand the release of all jailed bloggers and the end of Internet surveillance and censorship.