Friday, October 5, 2012

Free speech in Vietnam as Bloggers flogged

VIETNAMESE justice can be swift as well as ferocious, as three bloggers discovered almost as soon as they came before the People’s Court of Ho Chi Minh City, charged with having made propaganda against the state. Their case has upset Western governments and infuriated human-rights groups.

Panh Than Hai, who used to blog under the alias of Anh Ba Saigon, is to be jailed for four years after pleading guilty and promising to end all contact with “anti-state people”, whoever those may be. Ta Phong Tan, whose mother died after setting herself on fire in protest against her daughter’s detention, was sentenced to ten years. Nguyen Van Hai, a 60-year-old whose case was cited in a complaint by Barack Obama, was handed a 12-year sentence.

Their hearing, which lasted less than a day, looked very much like an old-fashioned Soviet-style show trial. Vietnam is still a one-party Communist state, whose government happens to be struggling: with an economy on the ropes, a series of banking scandals and allegations of corruption at the highest levels of office.

The three convicted bloggers had established a club for freelance journalists and wrote about all of these sensitive issues. Members of the club also covered bauxite mining, maritime disputes in the South China Sea, land-grabs and other abuses of state power. They managed to pick up a prestigious citation from Human Rights Watch while being harassed by the authorities along the way.

Their prosecutors said the trio had produced 421 stories over a three-year period which, taken together, “distorted the truth about State and Party, created anxiety among citizens and supported schemes to overthrow the government.” The court concurred and then put a cherry on top, judging that the bloggers were “seriously affecting national security and the image of the country in the global arena.”

Each has been sentenced to additional years of house arrest, to be served after their release from imprisonment. A fourth blogger, Le Xuan Lap, 54, who helped the other three by compiling their stories, was placed under close supervision.

America led a chorus of international outcry, demanding an immediate release for the accused. It argued that the conviction of Nguyen Van Hai, for the peaceable expression of his political views, was inconsistent with Vietnam’s obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights as well as provisions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Mr Hai had used the blogging handle of Dieu Cay, or “the Peasant’s Pipe”, and became perhaps the most prominent member of Vietnam’s online community, which has thrived in recent years as an alternative to the heavily censored (and badly written) state press. In 2008 Mr Hai urged Vietnam to boycott the Olympic torch relay in the lead-up to the Beijing Olympics, and was jailed for it. That arrest had been part of an earlier mass crackdown on citizen journalism.

The European Union, the Committee to Protect Journalists, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and groups formed by Vietnamese living abroad have all joined America in their calls for concern about the perilous condition of free speech in Vietnam. On the Press Freedom Index, Vietnam has slipped seven places from a year ago and is now ranked in 172nd spot, just behind Yemen and Sudan and only six places ahead of North Korea.

Vietnam’s government has been unmoved by the international protests. A spokesman for the foreign ministry, Luong Thanh Nghi, said the bloggers had been punished within the framework of Vietnamese law, consistent with the international covenants.

Most of the custodians of those international covenants would beg to differ. But Vietnam’s position is not without some measure of foreign support. No sooner had Mr Hai and his colleagues been jailed than Vietnam’s partners in the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) met at the UN in New York and threw their collective support behind Vietnam’s candidacy for a seat on the UN Human Rights Council.

And if not outright support, then at least indifference. Though the guilty verdicts made headlines around the world, in Vietnam’s official press they received only the barest coverage. The Vietnam News, for example, offered double the space on the same page for new health regulations to do with food storage. For those living abroad who may have missed it: foodstuffs are henceforth to be stored within 20cm of the floor, 30cm from the wall and 50cm from the ceiling. Banyan for The Economist

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