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MEDIA-VIETNAM: Blogging Boom Faces Gov't Blockages

Helen Clark

HANOI, Dec 18 2008 (IPS) - As Internet usage grows in communist Vietnam, fostering a vibrant community of bloggers, the government is looking at ways to regulate blogs, particularly those that tend to be political rather than personal.

Though blogging regulations have been discussed before the issue again came to prominence in November, with reports running in local media that the Ministry of Information and Communications was planning a law which would counteract "incorrect information" about Vietnam.

Internet providers Yahoo and Google were publicly asked to assist. Yahoo has a representative office in Vietnam and its Yahoo 360 blogging service, in the Vietnamese language, is hugely popular.

"The blogs represent a threat to the regime in that they can develop into a grassroots movement of public opinion, which cannot be easily controlled, as is the case with the state-owned press," Stephen Denney of Berkeley University told IPS via email. Denney runs the Vietnam Human Rights Journal blog, which he sporadically updates and which is not blocked in Vietnam.

Many bloggers say they are happy sticking the personal. "I think mostly people just treat it (blogging) as an online diary," Nguyen Anh Hung told IPS in a telephone interview. "All of my friends are doing that right now."

Though still a university student, Hung is active in Ho Chi Minh City’s IT community, and blogs about technology in English. Though he agrees with the official line, he is skeptical about enforcement. "There are 1.5 million blogs in Vietnam, how can they censor them all? The government just tries to keep things under control.’’

Whereas once information came mainly from state-run papers and scratchy speaker announcements broadcast through the neighbourhood, preceded by a tinny rendition of the national anthem, these days information is a click away.

Some 20 million of Vietnam’s 84 million citizens use the Internet. Cheap net cafes are common in both city alleyways and countryside towns. By 2010 the government aims to have 30 million people online, a target many agree is reachable.

Vietnam’s international bandwidth is 30 gigabytes per second. "Internet usage continues to grow," Chris Harvey, who gives regular seminars on the IT business and is the General Director of Vietnam Works, said. "Vietnam has one of the highest penetration rates in the region."

The government has pushed internet usage and harnessed its power to reach out to citizens. Last year Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, considered a reformer, conducted an unprecedented online dialogue, answering some 113 questions from people.

In October the same year Vietnam was rocked by its first Internet-spread celebrity sex film, featuring camera-phone footage of actress Hoang Thuy Linh, star of the teenage morality soap ‘Van Anh’s Diaries’. Four university students were eventually given suspended sentences for its dissemination.

But despite local media making occasional worried noises about the new prevalence of sex blogs, many see the government’s real interest in restricting political and news-centred blogs.

Recently blogger Dieu Cay [real name Nguyen Van Hai] was convicted of tax evasion and sentenced to two and a half years in prison. The international media watchdog Reporters Without Borders said the ruling was aimed at persecuting the blogger – who has written on the sensitive Spratly and Paracel Islands issue. The ownership of the islands is disputed by Vietnam and China.

Vietnam has hundreds of newspapers, all state-controlled. In May this year two Vietnamese journalists were arrested for their reporting of the ‘PMU 18’ case, involving high level government officials gambling millions of dollars of foreign donor money on football matches. Both were sentenced in October.

The press has since remained quiet. "Some people are right when they said that the fair are insulted and the two journalists are just victims," read one blog post.

The question remains how viable this would be. Already some officials have gone on record as saying the Ministry of Information and Communications’ draft regulation is unworkable, hinting that the way forward may involve more peer-to-peer censorship and reporting. Those found defying regulations may face up to 12 years in prison.

Though local service providers are already subject to stricter controls than more popular foreign providers the Vietnamese government has publicly asked both Yahoo and Google for cooperation.

"We need to see what is in the regulation. We need more information," said Vu Minh Tri, director general of Yahoo Vietnam. He added Yahoo 360 has a complaint function and posts which do not comply with user policy are reviewed and deleted. Yahoo was excoriated in the US Senate last year for providing details of dissident Chinese bloggers to the Chinese government.

Kevin Miller, a United States web consultant who also blogs on IT issues in Vietnam and runs the tech ‘un-conference’ BarCamp Saigon, thinks that Yahoo and Google may use their China experience as something of a test-run. "IT is a very lucrative market in Vietnam. It’s all going to depend on how much Yahoo and Google can get in return."

As yet, Google has little real presence in Vietnam. Yahoo has a representative office and several products tailored for the Vietnamese market, though servers are hosted in Singapore. Yahoo was in trouble earlier this year for conducting business in Vietnam without the proper permits.

Foreign hosted blog sites such as Blogspot have experienced reported filtering before, and sites championing democracy in Vietnam, human rights, religion or pornography are sometimes filtered. But compared to nearby China, much still gets through.

"Sometimes it depends on the Internet provider. It’s not consistent. A lot of it depends where you’re located," continued Miller.

And if the servers are located overseas then bloggers will likely continue posting online, and simply begin a new blog when theirs is blocked.

Blogger ‘Zero’ agrees. Though he too says he agrees with the proposed law, arguing, "It will protect Vietnam from sex and politics," he admits to being a fan of, a Yahoo 360-hosted blog full of news on corruption and scandal in Vietnam.

Recently pictures of hundreds of Catholics protesting the sentencing of eight Catholics over an ongoing land dispute, were posted. "If they delete it [], it will start again somewhere else," said Zero.

"In Vietnam, there are certain things you shouldn’t mention, or should tone down," said Hung.

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