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Vietnam holds Journalism Day amid crackdown on bloggers

As Vietnam prepares to celebrate its journalists on Friday, many of the country's most well-known political bloggers are living under constant fear of arrest. "It will be my turn, whether I post anything online or not," said Nguyen Huu Vinh, who writes a popular political blog under his own name. "When they do not like us, anything can happen."

He has good reason to worry: On Sunday, a third political blogger in under a month was arrested for "abusing democratic freedoms." The arrests come in the run-up to Vietnam Journalism Day on Friday when journalists will receive bouquets of flowers and gifts as a token of thanks for the work they do.

To mark the day, the British Embassy in Hanoi held an online talk on Facebook this week on the issue of safety for reporters in Vietnam, which included advice on operating within the law. However, for bloggers who want to discuss sensitive topics, staying on the right side of the law is not so easy. All three bloggers arrested in the last few weeks, Truong Duy Nhat, Pham Viet Dao and Dinh Nhat Uy, were charged under Article 258 of the Penal Code.

The article criminalizes "those who abuse the rights to freedom of speech, freedom of press, freedom of belief, religion, assembly, association and other democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the State." Some analysts say the wording was left deliberately vague to allow the government greater flexibility in moving against its critics. The penalty is up to three years in jail.

"The government has a very old-fashioned idea about the role of the press," said one Vietnamese media analyst, who declined to be named. "Some journalists have different ideas, they believe in free press like western countries, but they still have to self-censor to keep their jobs."

However, with more than a third of Vietnam's 90 million people online, blogs and social media are providing an increasingly popular platform for people to discuss issues not covered in the mainstream press. Many of these online commentators are, or have been, reporters for state-run newspapers. "I am a journalist, and I know the power of information and transparency and knowledge," said Doan Trang, who also writes a popular blog.

"I don't care about sovereignty, nationalism or anything like that. I only advocate human rights, including right to expression," she said. It's a trend which the government has not overlooked. On the sidelines of a meeting at the National Assembly this week, the Vietnamese minister of information and communication, Nguyen Bac Son, said the internet was a "store of knowledge" but warned against content which harmed customs and traditions and "sabotaged the country."

Police closely monitor prominent bloggers and many complain that they are prevented from leaving their homes during high profile trials or protests so they cannot cover them. "I started writing a blog in 2008 and since then they [the police] have interrogated me more than 30 times, each time lasts two to three days," Vinh said. In a further attempt to control online content, the government is poised to issue a new Internet Decree. According to a draft released last year, the decree would prohibit online anonymity and force website administrators to ensure online content follows the regulations.

But even the current Article 258 is a "Stalinist" tool of repression, said Jonathan London from Hong Kong's City University. "The message {...] is precisely to try to pour cold water over the reform movement and scare people and intimidate people," he said. The government "are afraid of these bloggers because bloggers could make their position and power go out of their hands," said economist Nguyen Quang A. But there may be other political motives behind the recent spate of arrests.

Some observers say the first two were the result of rivalry in the top echelons of the Communist party, and targeted bloggers who supported an ally of the president. The subsequent arrest of Dinh Nhat Uy on Sunday is being seen as way to cover this up. Whatever the motives, many are anticipating more arrests in the coming weeks. "I am not surprised by the way [the authorities] acted," said blogger Vinh. "Because in Vietnam, when they want to arrest someone, they do not need a reason."

Copyright Deutsche Presse-Agentur, 2013


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