• Population: 80,278,000
  • Internet users: 2,500,000 (2003)
  • Average charge for 20 hours of connection: 15 euros
  • DAI*: 0.31
  • Situation**: very serious

Vietnam follows the example of neighbouring China. Web content is extensively censored and e-mail is monitored in order to track down "subversive" Internet users. Seven cyber-dissidents are in prison.

Although the Internet has so far only reached 3 per cent of the Vietnamese population, it is growing fast. As in China, the government is grappling with a dilemma. It wants to develop online access as a vehicle for economic growth but it also wants to control its use. The authorities proudly launched broadband connections in 2003 but they also announced their intention to created a new police force to track down cyber-criminals.

Some Internet users, the boldest or cleverest, manage to evade the censorship imposed by the authorities. In a country where no independent newspaper is tolerated and all the news media are controlled by the state, cyber-dissidents risk heavy prison sentences for what they post on the Internet. For most users, the Internet is a controlled information media where self-censorship is the norm.

The government has invested heavily in a "made in Vietnam" communications surveillance system. Both the landline and mobile phones of dissidents are tapped. The authorities also routinely intercept e-mail and are able to identify where messages come from. In the course of two years, seven dissidents were caught as a result of this kind of surveillance by the Vietnamese cyber-police. Two of them were arrested in cybercafés. In most cases they were accused of spying and were given sentences of up to 12 years in prison in summary trials that did not respect the right of defence. They were also kept in prison for long periods without being tried.

Censored websites

The authorities block access to the websites of the main human rights organisations, including the Reporters Without Borders site and the sites of Vietnamese dissidents in exile. They have also created a Vietnamese-language search engine, www.search.com.vn, that only searches official webpages. The few sites hosted in Vietnam must request permission from the authorities to operate. In August 2002, the culture and information ministry called for the blocking of content that was "subversive" or "endangered national security."

The telecommunications ministry issued a directive on the use and organisation of the Internet on 25 May 2003. It said the Internet was a national information resource and should therefore be "organised, studied and use in an appropriate and effective way." It also declared a "strict ban on use of the Internet to oppose Vietnam's socialist republic by disturbing its security, economy, social order or traditional mode of life."

This directive gave birth to the Internet Centre of Vietnam, which was put in charge of "organising and inspecting" Internet use under the direct supervision of the ministry of posts and telecommunications. It is responsible for resolving conflicts related to Internet use, investigating violations of the directive and prosecuting offenders.

Heightened control

Vietnam has seven Internet Service Providers (ISPs), of which six are state-owned. The seventh, OCI, is entirely privately-owned but has been operating with official approval since June 2003. All the ISPs use the state-owned Vietnam Post and Telecommunication Corporation's network. Its centralised architecture facilitates Web surveillance and censoring of online publications.

The ministry of police announced on 29 January 2004 that everyone would henceforth have to show ID in order to enter a cybercafé, and that a record of users' identities and the websites they visit would have to be kept by cybercafé managers for three months. Cybercafés would also have to install software that monitors clients in real time and any client spotted visiting "suspect" webpages would have to be reported to the police, the ministry said.

Seven imprisoned cyber-dissidents

  • Nguyen Khac Toan, a businessman and former army officer, was arrested on 8 January 2002 in a Hanoi cybercafé and charged with e-mailing material to "reactionary" Vietnamese human rights organisations abroad. Found guilty of "spying," he was sentenced on 20 December 2002 to 12 years in prison and three years under house arrest.
  • Le Chi Quang, a computer specialist and law graduate, was arrested on 21 February 2002 in a Hanoi cybercafé and was charged with sending "dangerous" information abroad in the form of an article he had written which he posted online. Called "Beware of the empire to the north," the article referred to the circumstances in which the government signed border agreements with China in 1999. He was sentenced on 8 November 2002 to four years in prison and three years under house arrest. He is seriously ill with renal insufficiency.
  • Dr. Pham Hong Son, a physician and representative of a foreign pharmaceutical company, has been held in a prison near the capital since 27 March 2002 for translating an article from the US embassy website called "What is democracy?" and posting it online. He also wrote many articles about democracy and human rights that were posted in Vietnamese discussion forums. For the first four months, he was held in an undisclosed location where he was not allowed to see his family or his lawyer. The Hanoi people's court sentenced him on 18 June 2003 to 13 years in prison for "spying" and three years under house arrest. The sentence was reduced on appeal on 26 August 2003 to five years in prison and three years under house arrest.
  • Nguyen Vu Binh, a former journalist with the Communist Party newspaper Tap Chi Cong San (Communist Reviews), was arrested on 25 September 2002 on a charge of posting "reactionary" articles on the Internet, including an essay entitled "Reflection on the Sino-Vietnamese border accords" in which he criticised the 1999 treaty between China and Vietnam. He was sentenced on 31 December 2003 to seven years in prison and three years under house arrest. His sentence was upheld on appeal on 5 May 2004.
  • Pham Que Duong was arrested on 28 December 2002 after a meeting in Saigon with fellow cyber-dissident Tran Khue (see below). A former colonel in the Liberation Army, he and Khue created a group called the "Association of Vietnamese to help the Party and the Government fight Corruption." He was charged with spying for allegedly having links to "reactionary" groups abroad and using the Internet to receive and distribute documents hostile to the communist regime. He has not yet been tried and faces a life sentence.
  • Tran Khue, a literature teacher and co-founder of an anti-corruption group, was arrested in Saigon on 29 December 2002. He was accused of disseminating criticism of the government because, although placed under house arrest the previous March, he had continued to post articles and open letters on the Internet. In one of his open letters, addressed to former Chinese President Jiang Zemin, he had called for the revision of part of the Sino-Vietnamese border accords. He is still awaiting trial.
  • Dr Nguyen Dan Que, 61, a freedom of expression activist who had been released in 1998 after nearly 20 years in prison, was re-arrested at his home in Saigon on 17 March 2003. Officials did not give the reason for his arrest, but it was thought to be linked with a statement he posted online criticising the lack of press freedom in Vietnam. He was responding to remarks by a foreign ministry spokesman five days earlier claiming that freedom of information was guaranteed. Although he is ill with high blood pressure and a stomach ulcer, his family has not been allowed to visit him or give him the medicine he needs, and he has not been brought to trial. On 22 September 2003, 12 Nobel Prize winners wrote to Communist Party secretary-general Nong Duc Manh voicing concern about Que's health and asking that he be allowed proper medical treatment and family visits pending his release.

Convicted over a petition

Tran Dung Tien, 74, was arrested on 22 January 2003 and was not set free until November of the same year. He had been sentenced to 10 months in prison because, on 14 October 2002, he signed a petition calling for the release of cyber-dissidents Le Chi Quang, Pham Hong Son, Nguyen Khac Toan and Nguyen Vu Binh.

Nguyen Vu Viet, 27 and Nguyn Truc Cuong, 36 - the nephews of imprisoned priest Thadeus Nguyen Van Ly - and their sister Nguyen Thi Hoa, 44, were arrested in June 2001 on charges of using e-mail, fax and telephone to disseminate abroad information about religious freedom in Vietnam. They were initially given prison terms ranging from three to five years. But the sentences of Vu Viet and Truc Cuong were reduced to 32 months on appeal at the end of November 2003, and the sentence of their sister, Thi Hoa, was reduced to four months and six days. They were set free between November 2003 and February 2004, shortly after the US House of Representatives passed a resolution calling on Hanoi to release all Vietnamese held in prison or under house arrest for practising their beliefs or defending freedom of worship.

Links

* The DAI (Digital Access Index) has been devised by the International Telecommunications Union to measure the access of a country's inhabitants to information and communication technology. It ranges from 0 (none at all) to 1 (complete access).

** Assessment of the situation in each country (good, middling, difficult, serious) is based on murders, imprisonment or harassment of cyber-dissidents or journalists, censorship of news sites, existence of independent news sites, existence of independent ISPs and deliberately high connection charges.

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