If Nguyen Hoang Hai, one of Vietnam’s most popular bloggers, went online in his country he wouldn’t discover that his homeland was named one of the 10 worst countries to be a blogger by The Committee to Protect Journalists or that Reporters Without Borders named Vietnam an “Enemy of the Internet”. He wouldn’t find any information about human rights violations because Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and similar websites are blocked. He wouldn’t find reports about the arrests of dissidents, internet censorship, or critics being harassed, tortured and imprisoned. But he wouldn’t have to look these things up because he knows them all too well.
Besides, he can’t access the internet because he is in jail. He was scheduled for release on October 20 but according to his wife, the police have said they will bring new charges against him for campaigning against the one-party Communist state.
Known online as Dieu Cay, Hai was arrested in April 2008 and detained for several weeks without charge before he was sentenced five months later on tax evasion charges. He and his blog were under surveilience for several years because he advocated for democracy and human rights, exposed corruption and and criticized China. The agency which arrested him had nothing to do with taxes: it was the Internal Security and Counter-Espionage Departments of the Ministry of Public Security. Yet the government denies targeting him.
These new charges — as Vietnam escalates a crackdown on bloggers and tightens restrictions on media freedom — mark another sad chapter in the country’s policy of denying its citizens the right to accurate news and information.
The ruling Communist Party (CPV) has a tight grip on the media and journalists who threaten the party’s legitimacy can be charged under defamation laws and face severe fines and imprisonment. Bloggers have been charged with threatening national interests for posting articles that are critical of the regime.
While Article 69 of the 1992 Vietnamese Constitution recognizes freedom of speech, expression, association and the press, this is not the case in practice. Over the last years especially, there had been widespread censorship, blocking of websites, and banning of publications. The government even created a special agency, the Administration Agency for Radio, Television and Electronics Information in 2008, just to keep an eye on the internet and bloggers.
In October, nine bloggers were sentenced to prison for engaging in anti-goverment progaganda. Many journalists have been fired from their jobs for engaging in personal blogging.
According to Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index 2010, Vietnam was ranked near the very bottom: out of 178 countries surveyed it ranked 165. Not exactly the kind of company one would like to keep. Freedom House’s report on Freedom of the Press 2010 outlines Vietnam’s decline, classifying the media environment as ‘’unfree’’.
So what’s in store for Hai and the citizens of Vietnam who wish to have an open conversation about current affairs in their country? It doesn’t look promising, but the world is watching.
During her visit last month to Hanoi, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton raised the issue: “Human rights is an issue of great importance to the United States…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.”
While rejecting outside pressure, Vietnam has done little to polish up its human rights image. Just before taking on the presidency of the UN Security Council last year, it ignored or denied 45 recommendations from the UN Human Rights Council’s review of Vietnam’s rights record.
Vietnam is not only violating the rights of its people to express themselves but blatantly ignoring the will of the international community. The CPV is attempting to silence their voices and quell any criticism before its party congress in January. Vietnam bans opposition parties and requires all organizations be under government control.
As Vietnam moves further into the 21st Century and seeks to strengthen and modernize its economy, it is critical that it embraces human rights by allowing internet and press freedom and creating greater transparency.
Hai and other bloggers may be languishing in jail but the pressure on Vietnam to open up will hardly ease.