Vietnam: Targeting bloggers

Ministry of Information and Communications

The Vietnamese government tolerates no online political debate. Bloggers and cyber-dissidents who dare to question the government’s legitimacy or domestic policies are ruthlessly suppressed. Authorities have deployed a judicial, administrative and technological strike force, based in the Ministry of Information and Communications, to control online information. Though officials and the justice system on their own do not hesitate to violate articles 88 and 79 of the criminal code by imprisoning independent news providers, the ministry conducts its own internet censorship policy – ever more meticulously and with overwhelming force.

Internet regulation is the ministry’s prerogative. The office in charge of the task is the Authority of Broadcasting and Electronic Information. The ministry prepares and proposes laws that allow authorities to justify to the international community prosecutions of bloggers and cyber-dissidents. In order to avoid submitting legislation to the National Assembly, where members could comment on or raise questions about proposed legislation – although there would be no risk of a bill being voted down – these laws take the form of decrees from the prime minister.

Organization chart of the Ministry of Information and Communications (MIC)

Legislation by decree

These decrees are designed to muzzle information activists – and the platforms that carry their work – from the moment that the Communist Party of Vietnam classifies them as dangerous. For example, Decree 97, promulgated in 2009, focuses on political analyses produced by intellectuals and academics.

In November 2013, Decree 174 was made public. In effect since 15 January 2014, the decree provides for new penalties for netizens who disseminate content that includes “anti-State propaganda,”  or “reactionary ideologies” on social media such as Facebook. Although the criminal code already authorizes prison sentences for publication of  content deemed “anti-State,” the new decree gives authorities even more latitude to charges netizens whose prosecution under Articles 79 or 88 of the criminal code would prompted responses by Vietnamese civil society or the international community.

Decree 72: even tougher

Announced on 31 July 2013 and in effect since 1 September of that year, Decree 72  (lien en francais) constitutes an unprecedented assault on freedom of information in Vietnam. The government justifies this law, which restricts the use of blogs and social media to “dissemination” or “sharing” of  “personal” information, citing requirements for intellectual property protection.

Decree 72, which expands authorities’ legal arsenal, prohibits the use of social media to share information reported in the press. Authorizing the arrest of independent information activists who have not been accused of so-called anti-government propaganda or of “attempt to overthrow the government,” the decree constitutes a tool to maintain the Communist Party in power. At a time of major financial and political instability, the Party is attempting to prevent its legitimacy from being publicly challenged.

Thus, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung has announced publicly that blogs could be used “only to provide and exchange personal information.” In August 2013, Hoang Vinh Bao, director of the Department of Radio, TV and Digital Information in the Ministry of Information and Communications, warned web users against quoting or sharing information issued by press agencies, as well as government websites.

This decree marks the harshest attack on freedom of information since the prime minister’s signing of a 2011 decree providing for severe penalties against media personnel.

Online censorship

With private media prohibited, many people try to make themselves heard by putting up blogs and disseminating information. But these sites are relentlessly blocked by firewalls. Site owners often are arrested or subject to harassment if their content differs from the policies of the Communist Party of Vietnam.

The most recent official figures show that Vietnam has more than 3 million bloggers. According to the International Telecommunication Union, Vietnam ranks number three in Southeast Asia in number of web users, and number eight in all of Asia.

Internet businesses and service providers, such as Vietnam Posts and Telecommunications, which are state-owned and account for 74 per cent of the market, and Viettel, owned by the People’s Army of Vietnam, are the major web surveillance agencies. On government orders, they block so-called “malicious” sites (including newspapers, blogs, and platforms for political oppositionist or human rights-advocacy content), using the Domain Name System. Passwords are frequently hacked, and connection speeds are often slowed on days when dissidents are arrested or put on trial.

Rigorous surveillance is also the rule on the mobile phone network. Web navigation on the mobile internet is not secure, because the State controls the three major operators, which account for 90 per cent of the market.

With more than 22 million members, Vietnam has seen the world’s biggest growth rate in Facebook membership. Even so, Facebook has been blocked since 2009. The platform remains inaccessible through the major internet service provider, VNPT. Web users can still connect via other providers or by using tools such as VPNs, Tor, or proxy servers. The WordPress platform is also targeted. In 2013, the connection to blogs that it hosts suffered a major slowdown, and many blogs could not be accessed without censorship-bypass tools.

Shadowing and tapping

The Communist Party of Vietnam tolerates no online political debate. Anyone who defies this prohibition pays a price. Human-rights lawyer and blogger Le Quoc Quan was arrested in 2012 the day after he published an article criticizing Article 4 of the Vietnamese constitution, which upholds the leading role of the Communist Party in national affairs.

Two sites by blogger Nguyen Tuong Thuy, hosted on WordPress, were shut down for “violation of terms of service,” with no explanation given to the blogger. In all likelihood, the shutdowns followed repeated demands by government agents.

The so-called “nuisance” approach, which targets bloggers without the use of technological tools, reflects a larger official strategy. Use of surveillance and “physical” censorship expanded in 2013. The following of targets in the street, infiltration of pro-democracy movements and personal monitoring have become part of daily life for bloggers. In June, 2013, cyber-dissident Nguyen Van Dai publicly displayed the surveillance to which he was subjected in his own home. After acquiring an electronic bug detector, he found that authorities had been monitoring him from a room adjoining his apartment.

Detector showing the location of microphones hidden behind a wall in the apartment of blogger Nguyen Van Dai.

Since 2004, a special unit directed by the Ministry of Public Security has been in charge of operations against electronic crime of all kinds: credit card data theft, hacking, and illegal online gambling. The unit also enforces the prohibited information ban. Many bloggers have been arrested for posting illegal content about the Party. Some of them were taken in after having published criticism on their own blogs, or on their Facebook pages (among them, Huynh Ngọc Chenh, Ba Sam, J.B Nguyen Huu Vinh, Nguoi Buon Gio, Nguyen Quang Lap, Paulus Lê Van Son). Others, writing anonymously on collectively managed information platforms such Dan Lam Bao, Quan Lam Bao, Bauxite Viet Nam, Dong Chua Cuu The, Nu Vuong Cong Ly, as well as Paltalk forums, have been arrested following periods of official surveillance.

“Man in the Middle”  attacks, which establish counterfeit sites designed to attract users looking for the genuine versions, are also designed to dissuade readers of content that censors deem sensitive from connecting to foreign-based sites, including their gmail accounts.

Screenshot taken by a Vietnamese cyber-dissident (source: anonymous).

To a growing extent, bloggers and citizen-journalists are receiving emails with attachments that contain viruses. These may install Trojan Horses or shut down users’ computers. In using bloggers’ contact networks or rendering their work devices inoperable, this malware disrupts targets’ activities and discourages information activists from working in groups.

Emails sent to a blogger, with attachments containing malware.

According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an NGO, this kind of email has also been sent to an Associated Press journalist, as well as many Vietnamese activists. A Vietnamese blogger living in California was successfully targeted by an attack that led to his blog and his personal information being compromised.

According to the EFF, “The group behind these attacks appears to have been operating since late 2009, and has been very active in the targeting of Vietnamese dissidents, people writing on Vietnam, and the Vietnamese diaspora. The [campaign] appears to be the work of a group commonly known as “Sinh Tử Lệnh.”

Despite these attempts to hamper bloggers’ information activity, new information platforms such as Vietnam Path Movement, Defend the Defenders, Vietnam Human Rights Committee, FVPoC (Former Vietnamese Prisoners of Conscience) and Vietmeme, were born in 2013 and 2014, especially in English. These sites reflect the growing determination of Vietnamese bloggers to  make sure that their  message is heard by the international community.