The United States will raise the issue of Vietnam’s persistent crackdown on bloggers at a bilateral human rights dialogue this month, a senior official said Thursday, as six Vietnam-based bloggers expressed concerns in Washington over harsh restrictions on Internet freedom in the one-party communist state.
“We will be raising these issues with the representatives of Vietnam, because we believe these issues have to be addressed,” Scott Busby, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor said, speaking on a panel hosted by Radio Free Asia, Reporters Without Borders, and other groups ahead of World Press Freedom Day on May 3.
“We [will] continue to speak out whenever we can about the importance of Internet freedom,” Busby said.
Vietnam has jailed dozens of bloggers and rights advocates in recent years over their online posts, with rights groups accusing the government of using vague national security provisions against them to silence dissent.
Last year’s U.S.-Vietnam human rights dialogue in Hanoi covered a number of areas, including freedom of expression, religious freedom, prisoners of concern, rule of law, labor rights, and freedom of information , including for members of the media and online.
Washington had stressed that “progress on human rights would help Vietnam harness the potential of the Internet, help fight the corrosive effects of corruption, and make Vietnam more appealing as a destination for global trade and investment.”
Addressing six Vietnamese bloggers who had traveled to Washington this week to call for U.S. pressure on Vietnam to protect freedom of speech, Busby voiced concern over possible retaliation by authorities on their return.
“All of the bloggers who are here today should do what they can to stay in touch with people in our embassy in Hanoi or in our consulate in Ho Chi Minh City,” Busby said.
“And if you encounter difficulties or harassment, you should be letting them know about that, and we will do what we can—both with the government of Vietnam and in terms of our public statements—to make sure that your cases are dealt with appropriately.”
To better advance freedom of expression and the flow of information online, the U.S. should actively partner with firms like Google and civil society organizations in a “multi-stakeholder approach” to ensure the Internet is governed properly, Busby said.
The six Vietnamese netizens had 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.
Nguyen Thi Kim Chi, Ngo Nhat Dang, Nguyen Dinh Ha, To Oanh, Nguyen Tuong Thuy, and Le Thanh Tung said bloggers who pushed for greater rights face imprisonment, harassment, and restrictions on their families.
The group of activists had 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.
Organized online attacks increasing
Vietnam now has the second-highest detention rate for bloggers in the world after China, and Vietnam’s government has recently launched increasingly organized attacks on journalists and human rights defenders online, said Jon Fox, global advocacy manager for the New York-based rights group Access, which also hosted Thursday’s talk.
“We see malware attacks, we see sites being hijacked, we see phishing attempts on activists, we see targeted e-mail accounts being taken over—really the full spectrum of attacks,” he said.
Access provides a 24-hour help line for rights activists, journalists, and other “populations at risk online,” with Vietnam the group’s second most-serviced country, Fox said.
But even after recovering from attacks, groups are frequently shut down, Fox said.
“We can help an organization get their website back online, but if that organization doesn’t exist anymore, there’s very little we can do,” he said.
Do Hoang Diem, chairman of the Vietnamese opposition reform party Viet Tan, which also sponsored the discussion, said that the increase in Vietnam’s arrests of bloggers in recent years reflects greater momentum in the struggle for democracy and human rights.
“[The government] retaliates because the movement is gaining strength, is making progress,” Diem said. “So now, more than ever before, we need to help. We need to reach out and help the Vietnamese people.”
“We recognize that this is our own fight, but we need help from the international community, from the United States government, from corporations, from human rights organizations, and from NGOs to move forward and to bring human rights and democracy back to Vietnam,” he said.
Media seminar in Vietnam packed
In Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City, a seminar on press freedom organized by the Redemptorists' Church ahead of World Press Freedom day was fully attended on Thursday.
“Our room could only hold 100 people but all seats were filled,” priest Le Ngoc Thanh, the coordinator of the seminar, told RFA’s Vietnamese Service. “We had one hour for people to discuss, then we had a small group discussion and then we had one hour on arriving at conclusions and recommendations.”
Lawyer Le Cong Dinh, who is under probation after serving a jail sentence for “activities aimed at overthrowing” the Communist government, submitted a speech on the question of freedom of the press in Vietnam while a university lecturer, Pham Minh Hoang, also sent a video clip because the police would not allow him to attend the seminar.
Meanwhile, former Vietnamese Trade Minister Truong Dinh Tuyen called on the authorities to recognize the key role of civil society. especially in acting as a buffer between the government and market forces.
“The market economy has to be based on three pillars — first, the market, second, the government, and third, civil society. Each pillar has its own function and they have to interact with one another,” Tuyen, now a senior government adviser, told RFA.
“The civil society contributes to providing feedback and monitoring the implementation of policies,” he said.