Vietnamese Blogger Nguyễn Ngọc Như Quỳnh is the winner of the 2015 Civil Rights Defender of the Year award from Civil Rights Defenders, presented to her in Stockholm via Skype on Friday. She was unable to travel to Sweden to accept her award in person due to the travel ban imposed on her by the Vietnamese government.
Quỳnh is the Coordinator for the Vietnamese Bloggers’ Network and well known for her use of social media to speak out against injustices and human rights abuses in Vietnam. Blogging under the pseudonym Me Nam (Mother Mushroom), she has openly criticized the Vietnamese government over human rights abuses and corruption. She began blogging in early 2006 when she paid a visit to a hospital and witnessed many poor people in the hot sun desperately waiting for treatment, but ignored because they lacked money to bribe hospital officials.
Because of her human rights activism for free expression, the right from torture, and arbitrary detention and other universal human rights, she was arrested, detained, interrogated, harassed and beaten up by security police on several occasions. In 2009, she was taken away at midnight from her home and detained for 10 days while her young child was left home alone. She was charged under article 258 of the Penal Code: ‘’abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the State”. She lost her job due to security police’s interference.
In spite of these predicaments and continuing hardship, she persists to organize ‘’human rights coffee sessions”, human rights picnics, social meetings with like-minded bloggers and activists to discuss relevant UN human rights conventions, Vietnam’s role and duty to uphold its commitment to the UN Human Rights Council as a member state and to meet with Consulate staff members to raise concerns about fellow bloggers in distress and to advocate for the release of prisoners of conscience.
Civil Rights Defenders says she was chosen as this year’s honoree because “At great personal risk, Me Nam has been right at the forefront of human rights activism in Vietnam. With creativity and openness, she is a source of inspiration as she breaks new ground for freedom of expression and speaks out for those who can’t.”
Her personal motivation for blogging about injustices in Vietnam comes down to a very simple and personal reason, which she sums up in her own words: “I do not want my children to struggle and do what I’m doing now.”
Despite great personal risk, she is always devoted to speak up for those who can’t. She continues to be an activist that the authorities target and remains a force to be reckoned with.
As well as the international recognition that comes with the award, her organization also received a 50,000 Euro ($52,700 USD) award from Civil Rights Defenders.
I interviewed Quỳnh about her work and what the award means to her.
Congratulations! What does the international recognition of your work from this award mean for you?
First of all, this award definitely helps! It’s not just a personal recognition but actually it a protection for me and for the network members. More international recognition means less danger. Secondly, it helps us to remove the government’s “tools” to continue abusing human rights. Those “tools” include the legitimacy of an official member of a great international organization whose integrity was built by the mandate of protecting human rights at all costs. Those “tools” include many laws and decrees such as Article 258 that outright violate all the international conventions about human rights
What is the situation for bloggers like yourself and journalists in Vietnam today?
I was one of the people who was temporarily arrested and charged by the security police with the Article 258, for “abusing my freedom of expression”. Up until now, no one can show me what I did to harm the government or the society by saying what I thought. In Vietnam, the government still uses Article 258 to arrest bloggers and activists. More than that, this Article serves as a rope hung over all bloggers’ heads and creates fear: anyone can be arrested and sentenced to jail.
What are some of the threats that you have faced as a result of your work for human rights?
I could be detained or arrested anytime without [access to a] lawyer. My family is always harassed by police and “stranger” persons. My job can be ended without any warning.
What activities is the Vietamese Bloggers’s Network (VBN) engaged in? How many members do you have and what kinds of work do you do?
The VBN created a big new step in human rights activism in Vietnam. For the first time we conducted a campaign, fighting to pressure the government to abolish Article 258. Through this campaign, Vietnamese activists could work with the international community to protect and promote human rights in Vietnam. Initiating the collaboration and building a long working relationship between Vietnamese activists and international organizations indeed was the true purpose. We could not and should not isolate ourselves and stayed alone in fighting for the universal human rights. And now we are still continuing in that direction.
With the travel ban and after the arrest of [fellow blogger] Anh Ba Sam, fear started to spread quietly among bloggers and activists. In 2014, we launched a new campaign called The Right To Know. We combined the issue about the right to know to gain support from the international community and a “patriotic concern” about the nation political independence to have grass roots support from many people, especially from the communist party members who question the communist party and the government about the Vietnamese-Chinese relationship, particularly the secret signed agreement of the Chengdu conference in 1990.
A lot of ordinary people joined this campaign, posting their picture with the We Want To Know message on Facebook and blogs. We signed a letter and went straight to our parliamentary house with the letter. They closed parliament that day and temporary arrested some of my friends.
The members of the VBN show other people that we all can step out of our fear. We show them Don’t be afraid. We do this step by step and we call for joining together. If the Vietnamese people step out of their fear and joined together, the government will be forced to listen. They would have to answer us. The “We want to know” campaign was one step in the process of removing fear from people.
For 2015, we are now in the early stage of organizing a human rights campaign, named We Are One – about human rights, freedom and democracy for Vietnam. And in this campaign we try to create collaboration between activists inside Vietnam and abroad, you could check it on http://nhanquyen2015.net.
What do you enjoy most about your work?
By blogging I understand and appreciate the power of the Internet and social media. Its power is what changed my life. It empowers me. With the Internet I know that I have a voice and that my voice can be heard. So what I do is share my ideas on social media and by doing that I help to protect and promote freedom of expression. The government doesn’t want us to talk about what they don’t want to hear. But the people, yes, the people do want to hear the people’s song. And my voice can be a part of what people want to hear: the truth. I can raise my voice and act for the changes.
What would you like to say to other people working for freedom of expression and human rights?
Be brave! We not alone in the struggle fighting for and protecting human rights. We fight, sacrifice ourselves, and continue to join our efforts with the international community for the ultimate goal: human rights for all. And who will speak up if we don’t?