The authorities, aware they cannot impose a complete control of the news, are afraid of an increasingly connected population. Cybercafes are full, smartphones very popular. More than 111 cell phones are in service in the country for a population of 86 millions.
Netizens help defeat censorship
Citizen journalists have continued to fill the void left by the heavily censored official media. The bauxite mining activities undertaken by China and their disastrous impact on the environment are still such a controversial topic that the Central Highland region has been closed off. The few visitors allowed to enter the site are prohibited to bring camcorders, smartphones or cameras to prevent the circulation of embarrassing images. Despite all this, the Bauxitevietnam.info website has managed to obtain information and is doing its best to cover the situation on-site.
Another popular subject for Vietnamese Internet users is police brutality. One officer was suspended after a video was posted on YouTube showing him using violence against a demonstrator. The authorities initially denied the facts, but the concrete evidence provided by the video clip forced them to take action.
The regime has learned how to tolerate, and even exploit, online mobilization campaigns as long as they serve its interests. For several weeks following June 2011, calls for protests against the Chinese presence in southern Vietnam (disputed territories of the Paracels and Spratly islands) were circulated on Facebook, leading to public rallies – several hundred in Hanoi, and several thousand in Saigon. Although initially tolerated, these protest movements against “China’s violation of Vietnam’s maritime sovereignty" were first confined, then repressed.
Although filtering remains severe (see the Vietnam chapter of the 2011 “Enemies of the Internet” report), it has not been drastically intensified. The number of cyberattacks against sensitive websites seems to be holding steady. The government is more interested in monitoring than in blocking websites. Facebook is still occasionally inaccessible, but has not been permanently blocked from its two million users in Vietnam. This is another way for the authorities to monitor Vietnamese netizens’ activities and networks.
In order to meet the threat that the Web’s collaborative nature poses for Vietnamese censorship, the regime decided to regain control of social networks by launching its own national version of Facebook in May 2010. To open an account, the site requires users to identify themselves by their real names, as well as by their ID card number. According to The Wall Street Journal, Minister of Information and Communications Le Doan Hop is using his blog to encourage Vietnamese teenagers to visit the site to find out about its “culture, values and benefits.” The objective is to attract over 40 million members (almost half of the population) by 2015. To accomplish this, the network is mainly relying on making available video games popular with Internet users. By mid-2011, the site had about three million registered users
Waves of arrests
Another component of Vietnam’s strategy to control the Internet consists of the arrest of bloggers, netizens and journalists. One revealing sign of the authorities’ intransigence is that out of the more than 10,000 prisoners amnestied by the government to mark the 66th anniversary of Vietnam’s independence celebrated on September 2, 2011, there was just a handful of political prisoners. Blogger Nguyen Van Tinh and poet Tran Duc Thach, sentenced in 2009 to three and one-half and three years in prison, respectively, for "propaganda against the socialist state of Vietnam,” were released, but this rare piece of good news conceals a sad reality: netizen arrests have soared in the last few months in the world’s second biggest prison for netizens after China.
Several bloggers and activists linked with the Vietnamese Catholic networks were caught in a wide-scale operation carried out by the authorities between late July and mid-August 2011. Blogger Paulus Lê Son was arrested on August 3, 2011 in Hanoi as part of a genuine “police-engineered kidnapping.” All indications are that his arrest was linked to his attempt to cover the trial of the well-known cyberdissident Cu Huy Ha Vu. The Catholic priest Nguyen Van Ly was returned to jail despite his age and poor health. Blogger Lu Van Bay received a four-year prison sentence in September 2011. The announcement that lawyer Le Cong Dinh may be deported to the United States has not been acted upon to date. Franco-Vietnamese blogger Pham Minh Hoang was released from prison after serving his 17-month sentence, but remains under a three-year house arrest.
Relatives of blogger Dieu Cay have had no news of him for months, leading to widespread alarmist rumors. Whether or not they are well-founded, concerns about his fate and health remain justified as long as the authorities refuse to grant his family visiting rights.
The government’s priority is to remain in power, even at the cost of tarnishing the country’s image. International influence is dwindling except for that of an increasingly restrictive China, whose relations with Vietnam are highly complex. The U.S. Congress could play a key role in protecting Vietnamese freedoms. In early 2012, members of Congress are scheduled to examine a bill that could tie the non-“humanitarian” part of its financial aid and military cooperation between the two countries to expected improvements in the status of human rights in Vietnam, particularly freedoms of expression and religion. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) granted USD 134 million to Vietnam in 2010.