The government continued to exercise various forms of control over Internet access, including disincentives to its use by citizens. It allowed access to the Internet, but only through a limited number of service providers (ISPs), all of which were state-controlled companies or companies with substantial state control. Approximately 35 percent of citizens had access to the Internet, and it was widely used.
The government used firewalls to block Web sites it deemed politically or culturally inappropriate, including sites operated by overseas Vietnamese political groups. Additionally, the government apparently maintained its lifting of most restrictions on access to the Voice of America Web site but continued at times to block Radio Free Asia and the BBC Vietnamese and English Web sites throughout the year.
Vague provisions of law and regulation, such as the prohibition of propagandizing against the state, prohibit bloggers from posting material that the government believes would undermine national security, disclose state secrets, or incite violence or crimes. These provisions prohibit individuals from downloading and disseminating documents the government deems offensive. Regulations also require global Internet companies with blogging platforms operating in the country to report to the government every six months and, if requested, to provide information about individual bloggers. A number of prominent print and online news journalists maintained their own professional blogs, several of which were considered far more controversial than their mainstream writing. In a few instances, the government fined or punished these individuals for the content of their blogs.
Ministry of Information and Communication regulations require Internet companies, social networking sites, and Web sites that provide information in the areas of “politics, economics, culture, and society,” including those owned domestically, whether operated by foreign entities or not, to continue to register and obtain a government license before operation. The ministry also requires such owners to submit their planned content and scope to the government for approval. Enforcement remained selective.
On September 12, the prime minister accused three blog sites--Dan Lam Bao (The People's Press), Quan Lam Bao (State Officials’ Press), and Bien Dong (East Sea)--of propagandizing against the state and distorting information regarding several political and financial scandals involving CPV members. The next day he directed government civil servants not to read blogs and ordered the Ministries of Public Security and of Information and Communication to investigate “antiparty and antistate” Web sites that allegedly slandered the country’s leaders.
The government forbids direct access to the Internet through foreign ISPs, requires domestic ISPs to store information transmitted on the Internet for at least 15 days, and requires ISPs to provide technical assistance and workspace to public security agents to allow them to monitor Internet activities. The government requires cybercafes to register the personal information of their customers and store records of Internet sites visited by customers. It also requires ISPs and cybercafes to participate in investigations of online activity. ISP compliance with these government regulations remained unclear. Although citizens enjoyed increasing access to the Internet, the government monitored e-mail, searched for sensitive key words, and regulated Internet content. In May the NGO Southeast Asian Press Alliance criticized the government for its continued regulation of Internet content and monitoring of individual use and control of the media. In September the NGO Reporters Without Borders, in its annual Press Freedom Index, indentified the country as an “Enemy of the Internet” due to its systematic use of cybercensorship.
City and provincial authorities issued additional local regulations to control online access. In compliance, Internet cafes continued to install and use government-approved software to monitor customers’ online activities. Location of Internet cafes within 220 yards of a school continued to require a curfew on operations, and ISPs were obliged to cut online access to Internet cafes between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m. ostensibly to curb online gaming.
The blocking of Facebook was inconsistent among ISPs, areas, and time. From August to year’s end, the blocks appeared to weaken, with two of the three major ISPs allowing access to the site. Subscribers of other ISPs often used workarounds such as virtual private networks to access the site. In October the total number of Facebook users countrywide reached 8.5 million.
During the year the Ministry of Information and Communication issued several drafts of Internet regulations for public comment. The regulations generally would set additional vague standards for prohibited content, would prohibit online anonymity, and could require foreign Internet companies to establish offices and data centers in Vietnam, participate in censorship and online filtering, and report personal information about their users. News Web sites could be required to obtain government approval to publish, and Web site administrators would be required to report specified prohibited activities to the government. Bloggers were strongly critical of the drafts as undermining Vietnamese interests and further threatening freedom of expression. In April foreign embassies expressed concerns by letter to the ministry, stating that the draft measures would threaten the rights of “netizens” to freedom of expression and would hamper the Internet sector’s commercial development. By year’s end the regulations were not approved and remained in draft form.
Authorities detained and imprisoned activists who used the Internet to criticize the government and publish material on human rights and political pluralism. They charged the majority of arrested bloggers with propagandizing against the state or attempting to overthrow the government by their online writings. According to international human rights NGOs, courts convicted and sentenced at least 14 activists to lengthy prison terms during the year. At least 20 additional bloggers and activists were awaiting trial at year’s end, and others were harassed and intimidated by authorities.
For example, in July the Quang Nam Province People’s Committee fined blogger and human rights activist Huynh Ngoc Tuan--together with his daughter (also a blogger), Huynh Thuc Vy, and his son, Huynh Trong Hieu--VND 270 million (approximately $13,000) for posting antigovernment articles to the Internet and publicly expressing criticism of government officers online. The committee also placed a lien on the property owned by the three to coerce payment. The family refused to pay the fine, and in December authorities confiscated Hieu’s passport and prevented his travel abroad to receive an NGO award.
In July police in Quang Nam Province detained blogger Huynh Thuc Vy for three days after she participated in protests in Hanoi labeled as anti-China. Authorities interrogated her for 12 hours about her protest participation and her anti-China blogging and then released her.
In May a Nghe An Province court convicted Chu Manh Son, Tran Huu Duc, Dau Van Duong, and Nguyen Hoang Phong (four of the 18 Roman Catholic Redemptorist bloggers arrested in mid-2011 on charges of propagandizing against the state and attending an Internet/blogger training course organized by a foreign NGO in Thailand). The court sentenced them as follows: Son, three years’ imprisonment and one year’s probation; Duc, 39 months in prison and one year’s probation; Duong, 42 months in prison and 18 months’ probation; and Phong, two years’ suspended sentence and 18 months’ house arrest. Before the trial, authorities detained several bloggers, including Nguyen Hoang Vi, Chau Van Thi, writer Bui Chat, and human rights activist Bui Thi Minh Hang, and prevented their attendance at court proceedings. On September 26, the Nghe An Province People’s Court reduced Son’s original sentence on appeal from three years to 30 months but upheld the original sentences of Duong and Duc. The other 14 defendants continued to await trial at year’s end.
After numerous postponements, on September 24, the Ho Chi Minh City People’s Court sentenced Nguyen Van Hai (also known as Dieu Cay) and fellow bloggers Ta Phong Tan and Phan Thanh Hai (also known as Anh Ba Saigon) to imprisonment. The charge was propagandizing against the state, based on three-year-old blog postings critical of the country’s government, leaders, and ruling party. The sentencing terms were as follows: Dieu Cay, 12 years in prison and five years’ house arrest; Tan, 10 years in prison and five years’ house arrest; and Hai, four years in prison and three years’ house arrest. Authorities had rearrested Dieu Cay in 2010 as he was being released after serving 30 months for tax evasion. On December 28, the Ho Chi Minh City Supreme People’s Court upheld the original sentences of Dieu Cay and Ta Phong Tan on appeal (see also section 2.a., Freedom of Speech and Press, Violence and Harassment) but reduced Phan Thanh Hai’s sentence by one year to three years’ imprisonment after he pleaded guilty.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights on September 25 voiced deep concern about the conviction and harsh sentencing of journalists and bloggers and noted a trend of increasing restrictions on freedom of expression, especially against those who criticized the government on the Internet.
Throughout the year distributed denial-of-service attacks targeted overseas Web sites critical of the government. A majority of the targeted Web sites were news-aggregator sites that regularly republished postings by high-profile dissidents critical of the government. Hackers rendered several other Web sites inoperable. There were no developments reported in the Ministry of Public Security’s claimed investigation into the June-July 2011 hackings of the popular news portal VietnamNet, and no one was found responsible.
State-owned ISPs routinely blocked Vietnamese-language Web sites within the country when they contained content criticizing the CPV or promoting political reform. Vietnamese-language Web sites operated outside of the country were also filtered, particularly those that criticized the government or contained negative news stories about Vietnam. In addition, two Web sites associated with the Dega ethnic minority community in the Central Highlands were routinely blocked.
Political dissidents and bloggers continued to report that their home Internet connections were routinely disconnected on orders from the security services.