MARK COLVIN: Vietnam has the fastest growth in Facebook users anywhere in the world. It’s just one sign of the explosion in internet use in Vietnam, where millions of blogs have popped up in recent years.
But as web use grows, so does the government’s intolerance of dissent. A major new report shows that political bloggers in Vietnam are routinely subjected to detention and harassment.
Southeast Asia correspondent Zoe Daniel reports.
ZOE DANIEL: Vietnam is home to the region’s fastest growing population of internet users. People are logging on to find online alternatives to the country’s state-run media organisations. But for many political bloggers, fear is a part of everyday life.
In its report ‘Bloggers Behind Bars‘ the Vietnam Committee on Human Rights, says that 22 bloggers have been sentenced to a total of 133 years in prison, in just one year.
From Paris, vice-president Penelope Faulkner:
PENELOPE FAULKNER: We found young bloggers who were being threatened, intimidated, harassed, beaten, arrested, detained and sentenced to very long prison sentences, simply because they wrote on their blogs about criticising corruption or land rights or women’s rights or very ordinary issues that people are facing everyday – the rocketing price of living whereas Communist Party officials are living very well.
ZOE DANIEL: The most well known case was that of prominent blogger Dieu Cay and other members of the Free Journalists Club. In September, they were sentenced to prison terms of up to 12 years for so-called anti-state propaganda.
In the same month, the Vietnamese government vowed to crack down on three dissident blogs. One of them, Dan Lam Bao, or ‘Citizens’ Journalism’, is a news blog that includes stories about politics and human rights. Its writers refused to succumb to the government’s gagging order. One spoke to us anonymously.
DAN LAM BAO WRITER: We make a place where the people can raise their ideas and then raise their opinions, like their feelings about the policy. So we not belong to any party so we just tell the truth.
ZOE DANIEL: But blogging about anything that’s deemed critical of the government comes at a price.
DAN LAM BAO WRITER: They can follow you, watching your email, listening to your calls, and sometimes they can beat you.
ZOE DANIEL: And it is not just bloggers facing jail terms. Last month, Vietnam sent more than a dozen peaceful activists to jail in the largest trial of its kind. They were collectively sentenced to over 100 years in prison.
And in December, Vietnamese police detained lawyer and human rights activist Le Quoc Quan, as he dropped his daughter at school. When we interviewed Le Quoc Quan a few months before his arrest he described a life of continual harassment.
LE QUOC QUAN: Yeah they arrest me several times you know. Last week they came here, they force me, on Saturday morning they came to my office, they forced me, they brought a car here and then they tried to push me in with the policeman.
ZOE DANIEL: No one has heard from Le Quoc Quan since his arrest.
Another lawyer and human rights activist, Nguyen Van Dai, also knows what it’s like to get on the wrong side of the government. In 2007, he was sentenced to four years in prison for ‘conducting propaganda against the state’. He is currently under house arrest in Hanoi, and lives a claustrophobic life where he can’t venture more than one kilometre from his home:
NGUYEN VAN DAI: It’s very hard. I cannot find a job. I cannot work and it’s difficult for me to visit my parents, to go to the hospital. And yeah, it’s very hard life.
ZOE DANIEL: Australia is one of the few countries with a continual human rights dialogue with Vietnam and for the 2012-13 financial year has also committed almost $135 million in foreign aid.
Despite this, Australian-Vietnamese activists say nothing has changed. Trung Doan speaks from Melbourne.
TRUNG DOAN: I hope that the Australian Government will take heed of a recommendation from a parliamentary enquiry into the process. And that is to involve more parliamentarians in the dialogue process and for the Foreign Affairs Department to have a deeper consultation with Australian NGOs.
ZOE DANIEL: But a culture of protest seems to be irrepressible in Vietnam. Penelope Faulkner again.
PENELOPE FAULKNER: Young people are continuing to get on their blogs and to write. So I think the Vietnamese government will have to come to terms with this: you can’t open up your country and stifle the voice of your people at the same time, they’ll have to decide what to do.
ZOE DANIEL: Despite the possibility of a harsh prison sentence, political bloggers vow to carry on.