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Vietnam: Web Censorship

Categories: East Asia, Vietnam, Freedom of Speech, Governance, Law, Technology

When I began considering posting on Global Voices from Vietnam, the first thought that came to mind was what exactly was I allowed to post? What topics could I cover, and which ones should I avoid?

The media in communist Vietnam is state controlled, and although the internet isn’t as heavily monitored as the ‘net in China, a ministry exists that’s responsible for making sure web content is in line with the Party’s ideals.

There is a legal basis for censorship in Vietnam’s 1992 Constitution [1] , but it’s not without contradiction. Article 69 states, “The citizens shall enjoy freedom of opinion and speech…in accordance with the provision of the law.” The “provision of the law” is defined by Article 33, stating, “The State shall strictly ban all activities in the fields of culture and information that are detrimental to national interests, and destructive of the personality, morals, and the fine lifestyle of the Vietnamese.” Enforcement of this portion of the law falls onto the recently formed Ministry of Information (MoI), formerly the Ministry of Information and Culture.

The MoI is aided by Vietnam’s Center for Internet Security (CIS), which also produces antivirus software. The CIS is located in Hanoi’s Technical University, Vietnam’s top university. In a recent interview [2], director Nguyen Tu Quang stated that the CIS is fully prepared to provide technical support to internet monitors to aid in their “battle” to cut down “dark” websites. He further states that, (translated from Vietnamese)

Dark blogs have a lot in common with dark web pages, but if we don’t keep blogs in check, they could have a much greater influence on society…The problem of monitoring less-than-wholesome websites has been a difficult one….I think blogs and web sites need to be based on a partnership between technology and monitoring so that we can censor and restrict negative content and uphold our strength.”

Regarding his CIS’s role in internet monitoring, Quang feels that,

Now a lot of people are worried that it’s too difficult to find and deal with the owners of illegal blogs. But I’m positive that we can use technology to track down the home addresses of dark weblogs… Our goal isn’t to take down thousands of illegal blogs, but to find a way to prevent them from going up in the first place. If we take measures to punish and admonish bloggers, then the next time someone thinks about putting a picture or article up on the web, he or she will think very carefully.

Blogger Nguyen Tien Trung of Ho Chi Minh City has learned exactly what he can and can’t post. He wrote an open letter to the Ministry of Education reprimanding their political science education in Vietnam, and now web searches for his name from Vietnam lead to some blocked pages, but his Yahoo! 360° blog [3] is accessible.

I can understand why the internet monitors may be a little antsy about Trung; In the August 10th entry he actually uses Ho Chi Minh’s quotes to support of his progressive political views. (Translated from Vietnamese)

Why stage a revolution? Uncle Ho said, ‘peace, independence, unity, democracy and prosperity.’ but perhaps few people understand his far-reaching implication. The first three goals he mentions are peace, independence and unity, then we must continue, without delay, onto democracy and prosperity. Uncle Ho was very wise to put democracy before prosperity. If we don’t have democracy then we can never have true prosperity and development.

In a May, 2007 entry on censorship Trung says,

Master Ho Chi Minh said, ‘the purpose of democracy is to allow the people to open their mouths and speak. Article 69 of the constitution also says that ‘the citizens shall enjoy freedom of speech.’ But in reality that’s not true…

It seems that even those who’ve gained the attention of the MoI can continue to post controversial material, but it’s a dangerous game to play. Trung has mentioned having a government officer constantly parked outside of his house.

The expat blog scene focuses mostly on food or travel, but the best known expat blogger turned actor, Joe Ruelle, recently touched on censorship and in a humorous entry to his Vietnamese language Yahoo! 360° blog [4].

Everyone knows that blogging in Vietnam has its difficulties. But when I heard that Yahoo and Microsoft joined hands to monitor blogs with software to change ‘sensitive’ words into the names of Vietnamese dishes, I had to wonder…. Blog monitoring methods must be compatible with the internet community and flexible – not like this free range duck that Yahoo! Vietnam put into use yesterday morning. So angry! Tell the directors of Yahoo to get rid of their sautéed pumpkin green software immediately. If not, then I’m going to go to their office and take a rice cake and then go from restaurant to restaurant until all those boiled snails admit their fried rice mistake and Vietnamese pancake out a method that’s more fish sauce.

I have a pretty good idea of where the blog censorship line is, and I won’t even toe it like Trung. I may, however, to take a lesson from Joe and mention a few bowls of rice-noodle soup on my blog every now and then.