Country Spotlight: Vietnam
Even as the number of internet users in Vietnam reaches a critical mass, the state has ramped up efforts to control content on the web and repress activists and dissidents. Vietnamese authorities are using sections of the state penal code to clamp down on the freedom of expression and punish bloggers who speak out. The communist government has controlled all media (newspaper, radio, TV) since North and South Vietnam were reunified in 1975.
Vietnamese netizens have taken advantage of the web by using it as a venue to exchange views, to share opinions critical of the state, to promote political reform, and to fight for individuals who have been arrested for expressing their views. In response, the state has taken a very reactionary approach, harassing and arresting dozens of bloggers and pro-democracy activists, stepping up efforts to monitor the internet and blocking access to popular websites like Facebook, and coordinating DDoS attacks on websites that share opposition views.
In this report, learn about digital activism in Vietnam as it stands now. Skip ahead to any section using the links below. You can also download this report as a PDF here.
In a country where 60 percent of the population is under 30 years old and literacy rates are extremely high, the number of Vietnamese gaining access to the internet has grown tremendously over the past decade. By June 2010, there were 3.5 million subscribers, up 30.1 percent from last year. The number of Internet users is estimated to be 25.8 million, over a quarter of the population. The majority of Vietnamese citizens access the internet from public spaces like cybercafes.
Vietnam’s blogosphere is also growing; there are more than four million bloggers out of a population of 90 million.
At the same time that more and more Vietnamese are surfing the internet, the government has stepped up its efforts to surveil, harass, and arrest bloggers and digital activists. Using the laws mentioned below, authorities frequently detain anyone suspected of speaking out against the regime. The Committee to Protect Journalists calls Vietnam one of the “10 worst countries to be a blogger,” while Reporters Without Borders lists the Vietnamese government as an “enemy of the internet" and ranked it 165 out of 178 in terms of press freedom.
State authorities broadly interpret and apply the penal code to the greatest extent possible in order to arrest and prosecute bloggers and activists. As a 2006 report by the Open Net Initiative details, “Like most Communist countries, Vietnam nominally guarantees freedom of speech, of the press, and of assembly through constitutional provisions, but state security laws and other regulations trump or eliminate these formal protections (commonly referred to as the ‘national security override’).”
Article 79 of the penal code is increasingly being used to prosecute political opponents; it treats the promotion of democracy as subversion and carries the death penalty. Article 88 is also frequently invoked to convict dissidents for “spreading propaganda” and “carrying out activities aimed at overthrowing the people's administration.” Individuals who post pro-democracy information online, distribute leaflets in public, and criticize government policies have commonly been prosecuted under Article 88, typically receiving jail sentences between two to six years.
Under a 2003 law, Vietnemese citizens cannot receive or distribute anti-government e-mail messages. Websites deemed “reactionary” are blocked, and owners of websites with servers based in Vietnam must submit their content for official approval. And in July 2005, a joint circular known as “Circular Number 7” was issued by a number of ministries to increase the regulation of internet access. Under the circular, the use of circumvention tools to bypass filtering are banned, and any internet service provider must register with the state. It also requires that businesses offering online access, like cybercafes, install software to filter “undesirable websites” and record the sites that users visit. It also states that blogs should only provide strictly personal information and that internet users are not permitted to disseminate press articles, literary works, or other publications prohibited under the Press Law.
In another move to assert its authority, the government set up the Department of Radio, Television, and Electronic Information under the Ministry of Information and Communications in 2008. The agency is tasked with monitoring the internet. Then, in 2009, the prime minister issued Decision 97, which “prohibits publication of research that critiques or opposes the government or party, and limits research by private organizations to 317 government-approved topics. The Institute of Development Studies, one of Vietnam’s only independent think-tanks, closed in September, one day before Decision 97 went into effect.”
Most recently, new regulations were issued by the Hanoi People’s Committee in April 2010, requiring the owners of internet cafes (there are over 4,000 in Hanoi) to report activities demonstrating “abuse of the Internet,” including those that “Oppose the government of Socialist Republic of Vietnam; endanger national security, stability, public safety; disrupt the united harmony of the people; propagate war; create hatred, conflicts between minority groups, religious groups; provoke violence, pornography, crimes, social unrest, stereotypes; impair cultural values; call for illegal demonstrations, boycotts, unlawful gatherings for grievances and complaints. Disclose national secrets, military secrets, security, economic, foreign policy and other best-kept secrets stipulated by law. Provide distorted information, slander, and defame values of any organization or citizen.”
Duy Hoang, a spokesperson for the pro-democracy party Viet Tan, which is banned in Vietnam, describes the state’s motivations: “The government is afraid that the people have a venue that is relatively free of censorship where they can exchange their views. The government doesn't want independent sources of information.”
The video below from CNN details the internet crackdown.
There are a number of sensitive social and political issues that bloggers and activists have been discussing online, including:
Criticism of Bauxite Mining
A grassroots movement was launched in 2008 to oppose bauxite mining in Vietnam’s Central Highlands, an ecologically fragile area. Bauxite is a mineral used to produce aluminum; many believe there are environmental and security risks to the mining of bauxite in the Central Highlands region.
To draw attention the environmental and security dangers of the government’s bauxite policy, activists employed a variety of tactics, including online petitions, multiple websites to share information (www.bauxitevietnam.info is the most well known), and tee shirts with printed slogans like “SOS keep green and keep Vietnam’s security."
A number of bloggers were arrested for posting writings critical of bauxite mining. This environmental movement has seen renewed strength in light of the recent toxic spill in Hungary. A new petition has been circulated, and it appears that some of the opposition to the mining project is coming from within the party itself, as evidenced by the fact that 10 retired generals have signed the petition.
You can learn more about bauxite mining and the protests that have resulted in this Al Jazeera video report.
A number of websites have sprung up to uncover government corruption. The website “Nó Kìa club” invites people to upload pictures of the lavish homes of government and party officials.
Vietnam was ranked 120 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2009 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Sovereignty Disputes with China
Many citizens disagree with the government’s policies toward China, especially with regard to border policies and business deals.
In December 2007, students and bloggers organized the first-ever demonstrations outside Chinese diplomatic offices to protest Chinese claims that it controls the Spratly and Paracel Islands in the South China Sea. The Chinese have administered the islands since 1974 when its troops overran a South Vietnamese outpost shortly before the end of the Vietnam war.
In early 2008, a group protested against the Beijing Olympics as the torch relay came through Vietnam.
As mentioned above, the growing blogger/activist community presents a great threat to the Vietnamese government. The state's primary method of restricting what information is found online and punishing outspoken individuals is through surveillance, intimidation, harassment, and arrest.
Here is a brief timeline of some notable arrests.
Journalist Huynh Nguyen Dao, businessman Nguyen Bac Truyen, and Doctor Le Nguyen Sang were arrested and charged with using the internet, to spread anti-government propaganda.
In May 2007, they were sentenced to three to five years in prison for "propaganda against the communist regime."
Well-known citizen journalist and activist Nguyen Van Hai, who wrote under the pen name Dieu Cay, was arrested for “tax evasion.” This erroneous charge appeared to be in retaliation for his blogging and leadership in protesting government policies toward China. He was one of the lead organizers behind a peaceful 2007 rally against the government allowing the Olympic torch to pass through Vietnam. He also organized a demonstration protesting Chinese occupation of the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea and founded the Free Journalists Club (Câu Lạc Bộ Nhà Báo Tự Do).
Dieu’s family and friends anticipated that he would be released in October 2010, but he remains in jail. Vietnamese authorities said he would be kept in jail under a new charge of “propaganda against the socialist state,” which is forbidden under Article 88 of the Vietnamese Criminal Code.
In a statement, Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said, "The Vietnam government is shameless in constructing charges and rationales to keep peaceful critics like Dieu Cay behind bars. The pre-Party Congress crackdown is swinging into full gear and government critics are being targeted."
Eight bloggers—Nguyen Xuan Nghia, Nguyen Van Tuc, Ngo Quynh, Nguyen Van Tinh, Nguyen Kim Nhan, Nguyen Manh Son, Pham Thanh Nghien, and Vu Hung—were all arrested for posting writings online about sovereignty disputes with China.
In May 2009, Tran Huynh Duy Thuc, known by his pen name ChangeWeNeed, was arrested for posting critiques of the government online. He was sentenced to 16 years in prison.
Bui Thanh Hieu, known online as Nguoi Buon Gio, was arrested for criticizing government policies on China. He was released about a week after his arrest.
A number of democracy activists were arrested for alleged ties to the banned Democratic Party of Vietnam. In January 2010, Tran Huynh Duy Thuc, an internet entrepreneur known by his pen name ChangeWeNeed, was given 16 years in jail for posting critiques of the government. Activist Nguyen Tien Trung was sentenced to seven years, Le Thang Long, a colleague of Thuc's, was handed five years, and U.S.-trained lawyer Le Cong Dinh received five years.
Human Rights Watch issued a statement in response to the heavy-handed sentence: "This week's convictions and heavy sentences for four Vietnamese democracy activists, including the prominent human rights lawyer Le Cong Dinh, highlighted the climate of increasingly harsh political repression in Vietnam, Human Rights Watch said today after the release of its World Report 2010."
The four are Professor Pham Minh Hoang—lecturer at the Ho Chi Minh City University of Technology, Pastor Duong Kim Khai, Ms. Tran Thi Thuy, and Mr. Nguyen Thanh Tam.
Hoang frequently posted blog articles about corruption, the environment, and the defense of Vietnam's sovereignty.
Viet Tan released a statement declaring that it “does not believe that exercising one's freedom of religion or campaigning for social justices are considered objectives "to overthrow the socialist government. We believe that advocating for human rights is not a crime, and raising awareness about these unlawful arrests is necessary to end these social injustices.”
They launched two campaigns—“BE ONE OF A MILLION AGAINST 79” and “Free Them Now”—in response to the arrests and to call for the release of the four individuals.
Hong Vo, a 57-year-old social worker and Viet Tan member from Melbourne, Australia, was arrested on October 10, 2010 in Vietnam after participating in a peaceful rally. She was released 10 days later after the Australian government intervened.
According to Viet Tan, on October 18, police in Ho Chi Minh City also arrested Phan Thanh Hai, a member of the Club of Free Journalists. Two other members/bloggers, Ta Phong Tan and Uyen Vu, were placed under intrusive police surveillance at their homes. Police also briefly detained a democracy activist, Do Nam Hai, on October 19.
On October 23, blogger and gossip columnist Le Nguyen Huong Tra, who writes under the pen name Do Long Girl, was arrested after she wrote a blog post claiming that Deputy Public Security Minister Nguyen Khanh Toan provided favors to women who had romantic relations with his son.
It’s unclear whether this latest wave of arrests is part of a wider crackdown on dissent ahead of the 2011 Communist Party Congress, or if it’s related to a struggle within the party over its relations with the United States. Many believe these arrests may have been planned ahead of Secretary Clinton's visit to Vietnam at the end of October, and to prevent international reporters from speaking with dissenters.
Intimidation, Surveillance, and Harassment
In addition to the threat of arrest, bloggers and activists are also frequently subjected to intimidation and harassment. According to a 2009 U.S. State Department report, “Political activists and family members of prisoners were regularly and physically prevented from meeting with foreign diplomatic representatives. Tactics included setting up barriers or guards outside their residences or calling them into the local police station for random and repetitive questioning. One political activist reported that her home was defiled by animal excrement and motor oil to intimidate her from speaking out against the government.” Another report by the Vietnam Human Rights Network confirms these allegations.
In August 2009, the Ministry of Public Security issued an order for internet service providers (ISPs) to restrict access to Facebook. This came after a group of activists created a Facebook page opposing the country’s multibillion-dollar bauxite mine in the Central Highlands. According to Herdict, a website that aggregates reports of inaccessible sites, Facebook is inaccessible about 70 percent of the time.
Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Nguyen Phuong Nga attempted to qualify the order, stating, “A number of social websites have been misused to convey information with contents that oppose the Democratic Socialist Republic of Vietnam...and are threatening information security.”
The block seems more symbolic than completely effective, since the site remained accessible to users who knew how to change the domain name system (DNS) settings to get around the firewall. Others could access it by using Facebook Lite, a pared-down version of the website. However, the at least 1.4 million registered Facebook users in Vietnam are more web savvy than the rest of the population and know how to change the server set up and use proxies to access Facebook. The fact remains, though, that the majority of the population doesn't have the knowledge of using basic circumvention tools to access the site.
Viet Tan responded to the order, stating: “We can conclude that neither the government nor the ISPs wanted to risk public outcry from shutting down Facebook, which has over a million users in Vietnam including successful expats and many children of the ruling elite. Instead, the authorities hoped to kill off Facebook through a slow death as users got fed up with unexplained outages. What authorities probably did not expect is that some ISPs are reportedly maintaining Facebook access for so-called high-value clients and many internet users in Vietnam are learning how to circumvent the Facebook restrictions.”
The people behind Facebook do not seem to be too worried by the government order, even recently posting a job advertisement for a policy and growth manager in Vietnam in an effort to increase its presence in the country.
There are only around 1.5 million Facebook users in Vietnam, while other locally based social networking competitors that aren't banned, such as ZingMe (5.6 million unique visitors) and YuMe (2.9 million unique visitors), boast larger numbers of unique visitors at 5.6 million and 2.9 million, respectively.
And in an effort to further control the conversation online, the government launched a state-run social networking site—go.vn—that they promote as a “trustworthy” alternative to foreign sites. A trial version launched in May 2010, with a full version expected by the end of 2010. The catch is that users have to submit their full names and government-issued identity numbers before they can access the site. It's unclear how popular this site will become, and if users would be willing to share their personal information with the government.
Another way that the state has reacted to its opponents on the internet is by allegedly coordinating hacking and DDoS attacks on websites it finds threatening. Google and McAfee have both accused the Vietnamese government of orchestrating cyber attacks against sites that advocated opposition to bauxite mining.
Hackers also attacked Viet Tan's site in April 2009 and have been known to frequently e-mail malware discussed as documents to Viet Tan members. According to a Viet Tan report on cyber attacks, at least 10 blogs or websites with servers based outside Vietnam have been hit with DoS or DDoS attacks since 2009.
Human Rights Watch issued a statement in May 2010 demanding that the state cease its attacks, declaring: "The government targets these internet writers simply because they voice independent opinions, criticize government policies, and expose wrongdoing. Evidently the government is worried that these bloggers will reveal the inside story of government abuse and corruption, and report on incidents and issues it prevents from appearing in the state-controlled media."
The most damaging attacks deploy "botnets"—malware disguised as software used to support a Vietnamese-language keyboard—to spy on users and to carry out DoS attacks. According to SecureWorks director of malware analysis Joe Stewart, “Although speculation has so far been that the Vulcanbot attacks were orchestrated by the Vietnamese government or the Vietnamese Communist Party, there has been no solid evidence presented that connects anyone in the government or political establishment to the attacks. There is, however, some evidence that the attacks may have been perpetrated by a pro-communist hacking group....It is plausible that Vecebot was purposely deployed in advance of the October 19 date, as a means to stifle anticipated backlash from the further detainment of Dieu Cay. If that is the case, it would indicate some sort of collusion between the author of the trojan and the political establishment, since the botnet was in place a week before the Dieu Cay's scheduled release. This speculation cannot be proven through malware analysis alone, and could be purely coincidental. Whatever the circumstances surrounding the creation of Vecebot, it is clear that the purpose of the botnet is to silence critics of the Vietnamese political establishment where their voices might reach beyond the borders of Vietnam.”
According to their site, Viet Tan, a pro-democracy party based in the United States and banned in Vietnam, “aims to bring about democratic changes in Vietnam through nonviolent means and civic engagement.” Viet Tan has spearheaded many initiatives to teach Vietnamese citizens how to circumvent censorship and how to use online tools to promote socio-political causes.
They launched a blog called No Firewall that focuses on tactics that can be used to circumvent blocked sites. Fifty percent of traffic to the blog is coming from inside Vietnam. Netizens have been learning about the site through Google searches and awareness campaigns run by the organization itself and well-known bloggers. The group has also held digital activism training workshops at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and at Harvard University. Attendees learned about how to use tools like Twitter, Facebook, online video, and Wikipedia to promote their causes. The also run a number of issue campaigns to increase awareness about detained activists and internet freedom.
The group also benefits from a very active online community; many discussions are held on the Friends of Viet Tan Facebook page and its members frequently post videos, photos, and news articles to the site.
Obviously, the Vietnam Community Party bans the party and refers to the organization, which is based in the United States, as a terrorist organization.
The government has shown no clear signs of reversing its crackdown on dissent. Many are concerned that in the lead-up to the January 2011 Communist Party congress the state will “intensify its campaign to silence government critics and curb social unrest in an effort to quell any potential challenges to its one-party rule.”
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently visited Vietnam, and she was encouraged by a number of congressional representatives, including Senator Barbara Boxer, to raise the issue of human rights and pressure Vietnam to release political prisoners.
Clinton did briefly address these issues while in Vietnam, remarking:
“I'm also very pleased to see the agreement regarding the United Nations Convention Against Torture signed. This convention represents a decades-long commitment by the international community to respect human rights and dignity. The United States is honored to support the people of Vietnam as they reaffirm their commitment to this cause by ratifying this convention....While the agreement we witnessed being signed today is certainly a step in the right direction, the United States remains concerned about the arrest and conviction of people for peaceful dissent, the attacks on religious groups, the curbs on internet freedom, including of bloggers. Vietnam has so much potential, and we believe that political reform and respect for human rights are an essential part of realizing that potential.”
And in response to a question about human rights, she stated:
“Human rights is an issue of great importance to the United States, and we regularly raise our concerns, as I did last evening with the Prime Minister, and again today with the Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister. We not only raise this in general, but specifically with concerns regarding severe sentences for political activists, attacks on bloggers, restrictions on internet freedom, and religious freedom, tightening control over research organizations and the media. We raise these at all levels, both here in Hanoi, and in Washington, including through our dialogue on human rights.”
Bob Dietz, the Committee to Project Journalist’s Asia program coordinator sums up the current atmosphere: "Vietnam's crackdown on journalists and bloggers continues unabated, and hopes for media are shrinking in an inverse rate to the growing economy. We call on the government to reverse its course.”
Yet Vietnam has shown no signs of doing so. It has rejected recommendations by UN member states to allow groups and individuals to promote human rights, express their opinions, and express public dissent. The government also refused to issue invitations to visit Vietnam to UN rights experts covering freedom of religion, expression, torture, and violence against women.
I asked Viet Tan if they expect that the crackdown will continue to worsen. They do not see this trend stopping anytime soon, reasoning that:
- The growing blogger community (despite arrests) and more socially/politically-oriented blogger movement is a threat to the Vietnamese government. To deal with the threat the government is likely to continue cracking down on bloggers and cyber activists.
- Even though the arrests make the Vietnamese government look bad, they would rather lose face abroad than lose power at home.
- Vietnam is determined to censor the internet. Arrests and harassment of bloggers is an old-fashioned way to restrict the internet—meaning instead of investing in expensive technologies it is easier to arrest and terrorize people at the source.
At the same time, they don't believe that, at this moment, Vietnam has the capacity to increase its filtering and surveillance online (much like the Chinese), saying, "At this stage, Hanoi does not have the expertise needed. They can of course learn along the way but again this requires [an] investment of resources. I think the question Hanoi are asking themselves is, is it needed at this point? I think at this point the old-fashioned way of punishing bloggers and DDoS attacks against the publishers suffice. Also, blocking the internet at national level/general blockage will affect online business transactions. There is also a business consideration."
There are a number of sites you can visit to learn more about digital activism in Vietnam:
Threatened Voices, a project of Global Voices Advocacy, tracks Vietnamese bloggers and activists who have been arrested.
Open Net Initiative's profile of Vietnam