Vietnam’s blogosphere is posing a big challenge to state media as social media grows in popularity and government-sanctioned newspapers lose readership, a group of Vietnamese citizen journalists and digital activists told U.S. lawmakers at a meeting in Washington Tuesday.
The netizens called for tougher U.S. pressure on Vietnam to protect freedom of speech and information, citing harassment and imprisonment of those who criticize the one-party communist government online.
The six well known netizens—Nguyen Thi Kim Chi, Ngo Nhat Dang, Nguyen Dinh Ha, To Oanh, Nguyen Tuong Thuy, and Le Thanh Tung—were speaking at a congressional briefing ahead of World Press Freedom Day on May 3.
Three others invited to the briefing were prevented by Vietnamese authorities from leaving their country.
The activists who did make it to the briefing described the harassment bloggers and government critics face for speaking out online in Vietnam, which is ranked among the world’s worse online censors by international press freedom watchdogs Paris-based Reporters Without Borders and New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.
Nevertheless, citizen journalism and social media play an increasingly important role in challenging state censorship, the activists said.
“At a time when readers have become bored with the one-way reporting of state media, social media is filling their needs,” said Nguyen Tuong Thuy, a blogger and poet who writes about social injustices in Vietnam.
“Blogs have become a challenger to state newspapers, forcing them to change the way they write and cover the news.”
At the same time as Vietnam’s social media is exploding, strict censorship is forcing state-run newspapers into decline, the activists said.
“No newspaper really touches on big national issues,” said independent journalist To Oanh, a former teacher and contributor to state-owned newspapers who now blogs about injustices against Vietnam’s Catholic community.
“Over time, the newspapers in Vietnam have lost readership as the contents have worsened,” he said.
While state intervention leaves newspapers with only “meaningless stories” to cover, citizen journalists writing online are stepping in to fill the gap, fueling a rapid growth in social media whose popularity is growing, the activists said.
Call for US pressure
However, bloggers who do speak out face imprisonment, harassment, and restrictions on their families, they said.
The group of activists called on the U.S. government to leverage concern for freedom of speech in negotiations with Vietnam on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a proposed 12-nation trade agreement.
They also called on lawmakers in the U.S. House of Representatives to pass a resolution urging greater concern for freedom of information in Vietnam.
U.S. congresswoman Loretta Sanchez, who hosted the briefing, said she would work to educate fellow lawmakers about restrictions in Vietnam, noting she was “very concerned” about the TPP.
“We really feel it’s an important time to push back and to open up this issue of freedom of the press,” she said.
She condemned the Vietnamese authorities’ decision to block the three other netizens—bloggers Pham Chi Dung, Nguyen Lan Thang, and Anna Huyen Trang—from traveling to the U.S. for the briefing.
“Freedom of expression and information and the right to travel are all human rights, and the Vietnamese government’s aggressive and unlawful tactics to restrict traveling are shameful and only worsen their reputation across the world,” she said.
Barred from attending
Dung had his passport confiscated in February, Thang was stopped at Hanoi’s Noi Bai Airport and prevented from boarding his flight on April 5, and Trang was stopped at Ho Chi Minh City’s Tan Son Nhat Airport on April 13 and physically harassed by security police.
“I am not guilty of any crime … and yet I was barred from my flight,” Trang, who is a citizen journalist for Vietnamese Redemptorists' News, told the briefing via video message.
Thang said the restrictions on his travel underscore how much Vietnam’s blogging community can use help from overseas.
“Every day our work includes going to hot spots in Vietnam to report on events, to capture images that reflect what is happening in our society,” he said via video message.
“We really need the help of our friends abroad.”
The activists who made it to Washington, where they are attending various events marking World Press Freedom Day, said they expect to face punishment for speaking critically of Vietnam once they return from their trip.
“I considered it before I came and I’m ready to accept the repercussions that might come because of my trip,” said 24-year-old Nguyen Dinh Ha, who has been harassed by police for his online critiques and participation in public demonstrations.
“They might take my passport and prevent me from ever leaving the country again. And second of all, I’m afraid they will put pressure on my family,” he told RFA.
Nguyen Thi Kim Chi, a former star in Communist Party propaganda films who now frequently shares dissenting views on social media, said her greatest fear is for her family members.
“I’m not afraid for myself because I am prepared for that already. But what I am afraid of is what will happen to my husband and children because of this trip.”
“They are able to do to them whatever they want, just as they did with other bloggers’ families,” she said.