Vietnam's bloggers test govt's limits

BANGKOK - A fellow blogger calls the Anh Ba Sam blog the "pavement news agency", in a satirical reference to the official state-owned Vietnam News Agency.

Anh Ba Sam, which means "The Gossiper", was started in 2007 by former policeman Nguyen Huu Vinh, 57, and soon became a meeting point for people to discuss politics. It has been used to post videos and photographs of protests against land grabs, and also against China.

It is now one of the most popular blogs in Vietnam, drawing around 100,000 page hits daily. Some of the writers describe themselves as dissidents.

Anh Ba Sam is among a growing number of blogs that openly discuss political and social issues in a public space, against a backdrop of a sputtering economy, high inflation, perceived official corruption and a lack of government accountability.

But bloggers pay a price for their daring. As the authorities take note of the dissent and move to address it, they also try to stop it from getting out of hand. The arrest of government critic Dinh Nhat Uy in June led the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) to express grave concern. He was the third blogger to be arrested in a month.

"These three arrests over the course of a month signal Vietnam's deepening crackdown on online journalists who express dissent," said the CPJ's Asia Programme Coordinator Bob Dietz.

In May, the 30-year-old blogger's younger brother was sentenced to eight years' jail for handing out anti-government leaflets. Mr Uy set up a Facebook page calling for his brother's release.

State-owned media reports said Mr Uy was arrested for "compiling and publishing distorted and untrue articles and pictures on his blog, (and) tarnishing the prestige of state bodies".

The arrests have not deterred other bloggers in Vietnam.

Ms Pham Doan Trang, a former journalist, has a blog that discusses controls over state-run media and is critical of curbs on citizen journalists and freedom of speech.

The 36-year-old, who is writing a book on blogging and society in Vietnam, said in an interview: "Bloggers in Vietnam come from many areas. We see scholars, journalists, doctors, architects and even university lecturers. The common thing between them is they are concerned about political or at least social issues in the nation."

On her blog, she wrote: "More than anyone else, the Communist Party - herein represented by the propagandists and public security machinery - is aware of the power of secrecy. Transparency only means self-defamation and suicide."

In 2009, she was one of three bloggers arrested for "security reasons", according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. She was released four months later.

Mr Nguyen Xuan Dien, 43, is one of Vietnam's foremost researchers on the country's traditional folk music, ca tru.

In 2009, he started a blog which became a place for people to post reports about sensitive political issues. When anti-China protests broke out in 2011, both Mr Dien's blog and Anh Ba Sam became rallying points for protesters. Mr Dien went a step further by publicising the place and time for protesters to meet.

For his action, the deputy director of the Han Nom Research Institute was demoted to just a research department head.

"A moderate demonstration without violence is supported by laws in most political systems in the world, including Vietnam," he wrote in a blog post.

In spite of the Communist Party's crackdown on bloggers, analysts say that some within the party are aware that public expectations must also be considered.

The tension between an opaque power elite and changing public expectations is creating cracks within the party, which some analysts have called deep fractures.

Last month, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung was dealt a rare snub in the country's first-ever confidence vote aimed at assuaging public anger. He received 160 "low confidence" votes from the 498-member National Assembly.

Said Professor Jonathan London of the City University of Hong Kong: "There have been unprecedented developments in Vietnam's political culture... people are now speaking quite openly about their dissatisfaction."

But he added: "There is a slow but unmistakable process of pluralism within the party... but not yet to the point that it represents a breakthrough."

nirmal@sph.com.sg