The “Cuba Experts” love to point to Vietnam as an example of how U.S. engagement with repressive totalitarian communist regimes is in America’s best interest. However, their is another more pertinent similarity between these two oppressive states the “Cuba Experts” will never point out.
Blogging for Freedom in Vietnam
A few years before his arrest, in 2012, I exchanged e-mails with the Vietnamese blogger Le Quoc Quan, a Hanoi-based lawyer who first started blogging in 2005. He told me that his first post, just a sentence long, read: “Oh my fatherland of Vietnam, I want to say something to you!”
While working on my book about Internet dissent in the Communist and post-Communist world, I interviewed bloggers in China, Cuba, and Russia who, like Quan, wanted to tell stories that did not appear in the state-controlled media.
Quan, whose blogging career started in a small shop that repaired computers and sold pirated software, wrote about a variety of topics, including corruption, anti-China demonstrations, and the arrest of the prominent human-rights lawyer Le Cong Dinh. In 2012, not long after publishing an article that criticized a draft of Vietnam’s constitution, Quan was arrested for tax evasion in a case that was widely viewed as politically motivated. He was sentenced to thirty months in prison, where he remains today.
Last month, the popular Vietnamese blogger Nguyen Huu Vinh and his assistant Nguyen Thi Minh Thuy were both arrested for abuses of “democratic freedoms.” Human Rights Watch called the arrests a “cynical and chilling move.”
These cases have painted a bleak picture of Internet freedom in Vietnam, a country that blocks Web sites and surveils netizens. The Internet came to Vietnam in the nineteen-nineties, and use of it has grown at a rapid pace ever since. According to figures from 2013, more than one in four Vietnamese said that they had used the Internet in the past week. The Vietnamese government, in response, has tried to rein in dissent by enacting laws that restrict online content, but authorities cannot entirely control the spread of information.
Ngo Nhat Dang, a Hanoi-based independent journalist, told me that it’s easy to get around the censorship laws. People “use word of mouth to spread knowledge about circumvention, so when one gets blocked others simply come in to help,” he said.
The Vietnamese government has also intermittently blocked Facebook, which, according to some estimates, has over twenty-two million users in Vietnam. Despite relatively weak controls, Vietnamese authorities do not seem ready to let the social media site run completely free. The Communist Party, in particular, is worried about freedom of assembly and Facebook’s power to spur collective action.
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