Internet Watchdogs on the Region

Appearing at the East-West Center’s 3rd International Media Conference (IMC) in Seoul, South Korea, Viet Tan’s Chairman spoke on the panel “Internet Watchdogs on the Region.” IMC 2012 brought together over 300 media professionals from 30 countries to discuss the common challenges and trends in media.

IMC 2012’s theme is Networked News: How New Media is Shaping Stories in Asia and the Pacific, touching upon the role that social media networks play in shaping modern journalism and its impact on politics around the world.

June 23, 2012

Click here to listen to the entirety of the panel and Q&As


Good afternoon. I guess it’s always tough to be the last speaker on the last panel of the day so bear with me. I think at this point we all can pretty much agree that the Internet has really changed our lives profoundly.

In the case of Vietnam, the Internet really has created on the one hand, a huge opportunity for the Vietnamese people and on the other hand, a great challenge for the Vietnamese Communist government.

It is an opportunity for two reasons, for the democracy movement, with 30 million people online, that’s a third of the Vietnamese population online right now. Citizen journalism, through blogging, has created a de-facto free media. People can now report what’s going on around them, whether it’s an act of police brutality or a protest against a corrupt official, people now have the power to put online what’s going on around them.

Social media sites like Facebook have created a de-facto civil society where freedom of association and assembly flourishes. So you can say that the Internet has really helped to expand political space in Vietnam and it has created a platform where freedom of expression and civic action can take place and truly empower the Vietnamese people. Secondly, it is also an opportunity in terms of the socio-economic development of Vietnam. The Internet had played a critical role in trade, business development and investment in Vietnam.

However, we need to keep the Internet free and unrestricted if we want to promote a knowledge-base society that Vietnam really needs in order to catch up with the rest of the world. The government realised the potential danger the Internet poses and that’s why they have been stepping up efforts to control and censor the Internet through four main approaches.

The first one is by filtering or firewalling, if you will, the so-called undesirable websites, but they don’t realise the more they try to firewall, the more people try to circumvent, especially the young. You can say that circumvention is in a way, the ultimate act of civil disobedience of the 21st century.

The second approach is by resorting to attacking websites and using spyware and malware to spy on users. The third approach they [Hanoi] have used is to harass and detain bloggers but again here, the more bloggers they tried to harass and detain, the more people will become bolder and outspoken. The funny thing is a lot of the bloggers in Vietnam are now internationally recognised as dissidents.

The last approach they have used lately to censor the Internet is by legal means or as we call it rule by law in Vietnam. The government uses vague and arbitrary articles in the Vietnamese penal code as an excuse to lock up people. For example, Article 88 in the Vietnamese penal code, the so-called “propaganda against the state” has often been used to lock away quite a few people since 2007. Here’s my favourite one, Article 258, “abusing democratic rights” has often been cited as an excuse to lock up people in prison.

So facing these challenges, my organisation, Viet Tan, have focused our activities on five key areas. The first is trying to raise awareness around the world about what’s going on inside Vietnam about Internet censorship, about human rights violations in Vietnam. Believe it or not, there are many parts of the world totally unaware of what’s going on inside Vietnam. It is our job, our duty to try to educate people and let people know what’s really going on inside Vietnam underneath that appearance of economic development.

The second key area that we have been focusing on is advocacy for Internet freedom through lobbying for international pressure. We also try to mobilise the Vietnamese people to fight for their own rights.

The third key area we have been focusing on is supporting citizen journalists by providing actual material support for those who have been harassed or detained by the authority. We also try to gain international recognition for them as a means of protection for these people.

The fourth area of activity for us is to help people circumvent firewalls and to teach people how to protect themselves online. We host a website called No Firewall with tools and tips to help people to get around firewalls. We collaborate with NGOs to conduct trainings, Internet security training for journalists, for activists and for users inside Vietnam.

The last area of activity for us has been to organise online campaigns. We support and we actually help people to organise both online and offline protests. We establish groups online to talk about these issues that would otherwise be banned by the government. We have also tried to set up online petitions to address both political and social issues that otherwise would be tabooed by the government.

So, to sum up, I just want to stress that the need to fight for and to protect Internet freedom is absolutely critical in the case of Vietnam. We have seen the power of the Internet and how and what it can do in North Africa and the Middle East and it is my hope that democracy will come to parts of Asia like Vietnam. The Internet will undoubtedly play a key role and it is absolutely crucial that we fight for and protect Internet freedom in Vietnam.

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