Round up the usual suspects…
Twenty months ago, I was approached by a member of the team that puts out the Anh Ba Sam blog, Vietnam’s leading source of “alternative news.” Would I mind, they asked, if they posted a Vietnamese translation of a story that I’d written on the deepening South China Sea crisis.
I agreed, and there began a relationship that has made my writings on contemporary Vietnam far better known to readers there and in the Vietnamese diaspora than to the several thousands who read me in Asia Sentinel and other regional online publications.
Lately — up to March 8, anyway — there has been a lively debate on the Ba Sam blog about how the Vietnamese Constitution ought to be revised. There’s nothing strange there; the National Assembly is going to vote on a new text in the fall, and in anticipation it has called for the people to express their ideas.
Taking the legislature at its word, commentaries posted on Anh Ba Sam have tilted sharply toward freeing the current constitution’s guarantees of human rights from a host of eviscerating national security-based limitations. There’s also been considerable support for diluting the Communist Party’s monopoly of political decision-making and freeing the courts and the mainstream media from a surfeit of political instruction.
That nearly ended on March 8, when the Ba Sam blog was thoroughly hacked. Several years’ reportage and commentary were deleted. The e-mail accounts of the blog’s editorial team were also compromised. The Ba Sam team has so far been unable to regain control of wordpress.anhbasam.com. That’s a manageable tragedy, however. All but a few days’ content was backed up on offshore servers.
Then, however, on March 13, the hackers struck again, posting on the website an apologia attributed to the blog’s managing editor, cobbled together from e-mailed messages and photos. Like all effective propaganda, it was a mixture of fact and fiction. A naive reader might conclude that the Anh Ba Sam team are in fact renegades and grudge-bearing reactionaries based in the United States and dedicated to the overthrow of the Hanoi regime.
That’s a considerable exaggeration. They are trenchant critics of the regime, for sure, but Anh Ba Sam’s first priority has been to publish an objective summary of newsworthy events in and about Vietnam. It’s up with the news 24/7. As might be expected, the blog has given particular emphasis to the stories that Vietnam’s state-supervised media has been unable to report. Its daily digest is the hook that has caught the attention of 100,000-plus regular readers.
Additionally, the Anh Ba Sam blog has published a great deal of commentary, mostly by a distinguished stable of Vietnamese academics, old revolutionaries and retired officials. And it also has published my essays every three or four weeks on problems of environmental governance, media culture, economic policy gone awry, China’s moves to turn its farcical South China Sea claim into fact, and the fumbling efforts of the regime and ruling party to reform land policy, right a faltering economy and rewrite the nation’s constitution.
The hacking of Anh Ba Sam got to me directly and personally, and that’s why I’m writing this in first-person. We’ve had a seriously professional relationship. The Ba Sam team thought my stories were worth the attention of its Vietnamese readers. And, having learned that whatever I wrote was inevitably going to appear in translation somewhere in the Vietnamese blogosphere, I wanted whatever that was attributed to me at least to be what I meant to say. Our arrangement was that Ba Sam volunteers would send their translations to me, and with help from the native speaker who consented to marry me 44 years ago, I’d check that they’d got it right.
In September 2012, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung issued “guidance” that authorized Vietnamese cyberpolice to go after blogs that posted “slanderous, fabricated, distorted and false” reports on the nation’s leaders. At the time, Dung was fighting to keep his job, and it was tempting to regard his order simply as a riposte to intra-party rivals’ sponsorship of scurrilous anti-Dung blogs.
Six months later, however, someone has taken down Vietnam’s best blog, one that had no particular animus for Dung. It was the system that Anh Ba Sam subjected to daily, withering scrutiny, not Dung himself. With tighter security and another URL, wordpress.anhbasam04.com, it is being reconstituted, and so the cat-and-mouse game between Vietnam’s community of free journalists and its internal security agencies goes on.
What’s evident is that like the weeds in my garden, Vietnam’s free online press can be clobbered from time to time but not eliminated. Some bloggers simply give up rather than serve time in prison or lose their livelihoods. Many more blogs spring up to take their place. No matter how sophisticated the Vietnamese cybercops become, however, Internet-enabled dissent is beyond their ability to control. In the internet era, the Hanoi regime might have better success reasoning with its critics rather than trying to suppress them.
Blogger Slashed by Thugs
An outspoken Vietnamese blogger has been attacked by knife-wielding thugs after he took part in an anti-China rally in Hanoi amid a government crackdown on activists who attended the rare public demonstrations.
Catholic blogger Nguyen Huu Vinh said a group of local thugs came to his house in Hanoi’s Giap Bat precinct on Sunday after he came from the demonstrations.
“They charged into my house to beat me and slash me with a large knife right after I was at the anti-China demonstration,” Vinh told RFA’s Vietnamese service.
Vinh received cuts on the neck, back, chest, and hands before neighbors responded to his calls for help and the thugs ran away.
He said the ringleader of the group was the son of the head of a neighborhood committee, the lowest level of local government administration.
“They were not police, but a group of thugs organized by the local urban population group head Nguyen Xuan Ky’s son,” he charged. The charge could not be immediately verified with the authorities.
Vietnamese authorities have harassed other netizens and activists who participated in or tried to attend the anti-China rallies in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City on July 1 and 8.
Public demonstrations are rarely allowed in Vietnam and the rallies, sparked by territorial disputes in the South China Sea, have been led by dissidents and activists.
Vinh, a former policeman in his mid-50s, said he called local police twice for help and to report the incident but that they arrived at his home after a long delay.
The Giap Bat precinct deputy police chief was at the scene and submitted a report that evening, followed by other police personnel the next day, Vinh said.
Vinh said he had never had any personal conflicts with the attackers and did not know why they would go after him.
He warned police not to allow impunity for those who act illegally against him and his family.
“When working with the Giap Bat precinct police, I made clear that I strongly protest any action of harboring individuals … who threaten me and threaten my life or spy on my family and invade our privacy, among other things,” he said.
Vinh, who blogs about social injustice, official corruption, and Hanoi’s response to Chinese “aggression” in the South China Sea, has been questioned more than 30 times by the authorities over his writing, including by the Ministry of Public Security.
Vinh said that on those occasions he told the authorities his writing is truthful and it would be illegal to make him stop.
“All of my writings are based in truth and reality. If you want to prohibit me from writing these realities, you should get the National Assembly to promulgate a law banning people from telling the truth. Then I’ll abide by that law,” Vinh said.
“I want to live in a society under a state of law in which everything must be clear and transparent,” he added.
Vinh is a member of the Archdiocese of Hanoi and many of his articles have documented on repression of Roman Catholics in Vietnam, including Hanoi’s Thai Ha parish.
His blog was hacked in 2010 amid a series of cyberattacks on dissident websites that media watchdog Reporters Without Borders said may have been part of a government crackdown.
He has witnessed, blogged about, and posted photos of religious crackdowns and land seizures, as well the anti-China rallies this year and last year.
He said that despite efforts to intimidate him he would not stop attending the demonstrations.
“I feel moved when seeing posters held high by my fellow anti-China demonstrators expressing their patriotism. I believe that every Vietnamese citizen has that obligation and I myself also have such an obligation, so I continue to take part in the demonstrations,” Vinh said.
Fellow blogger Huynh Thuc Vy, from Vietnam’s Quang Nam province, was detained by police and driven from Ho Chi Minh City to her hometown after attending a rally the week before.
Several other bloggers said they had been prevented from attending the demonstrations.
Last year, authorities allowed the first of the anti-China demonstrations to go ahead without disruption, but detained dozens of participants at later protests following talks between Hanoi and Beijing.
Calls for release
The attack on Vinh came as New York-based international watchdog Human Rights Watch (HRW) called on U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to press Vietnam for the release of prominent bloggers during her visit to Hanoi on Tuesday.
The country has imprisoned more than a dozen bloggers and activists in the past three years for using the Internet to promote their causes and express their opinions, the organization said.
“Vietnam continues to harass, intimidate, arrest, and imprison bloggers and online activists” who are exercising their basic rights of expression, it said.