HANOI— While journalists working for Vietnam's state-run media are receiving gifts for Revolutionary Journalism Day, bloggers and Internet activists are not so lucky. The Vietnamese government seems eager to celebrate the role of the media in the country's wars against France and the U.S., but it is not so tolerant of independent voices and has arrested several in a recent crackdown.
In a recent speech to the National Assembly, Minister of Information and Communication Nguyen Bao Son said the Internet had helped Vietnam’s development, but stressed that there was also a negative side.
He said opportunist elements had abused the Internet to spread false information that distorted state policies.
Over the last month, two bloggers and an Internet activist have been accused of doing just that. They were arrested for “abusing democratic freedoms,” a charge that can result in a three-year jail term.
Some point to internal rivalry as motivation for the crackdown.
Jonathan London, from the City University in Hong Kong, said the arrests were aimed at scaring people.
"My own sense is that after observing that there have been important, significant changes in Vietnamese political culture that a wave of oppression of uncertain duration has begun in earnest and the arrests of bloggers, in particular bloggers who may be more moderate in their criticisms of the current state of affairs is alarming."
Shortly before his arrest, 49-year-old Truong Duy Nhat posted an article on his blog blaming Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung and Communist Party chief Nguyen Phu Trong for the country’s economic crisis and called for their resignations.
A few weeks later, on June 13, police arrested another prominent political blogger, 61-year-old Pham Viet Dao, at his home in Hanoi. The following Sunday, Dinh Nhat Uy was also arrested. Uy had recently launched an Internet campaign to free his younger brother who had been jailed for eight years for handing out anti-government pamphlets.
Thursday, Human Rights Watch condemned the arrests and called for the bloggers immediate release.
Accessing information on a topic that is not approved for discussion by the state is difficult, says journalist and blogger Doan Trang. For example, she says journalists are sometimes told not to report on a topic like the territorial dispute over the South China Sea.
"But if some bloggers or journalists still try to access information, especially official information, [if] they try to meet scholars or retired officials to talk about [the] South China Sea dispute and they publish it on their personal blog - if that article goes viral on the Internet, then that person will be in trouble, or at least the one that they met will be in trouble."
Over a third of Vietnam’s population of 90 million people use the Internet. Social media and blogging are becoming increasingly popular.
Trang says while more people are writing political blogs, she thinks the state has “effective tools” to keep them in check. These include police intimidation and so-called “public opinion shapers” employed to post comments on blogs and social media.
Many observers say they expect more arrests in the coming weeks.