Vietnam’s 10-year sentence for a blogger who questioned her government’s response to a toxic chemical flap joins a pack of actions that point to growing official impatience with online criticism of graft and perceived inefficiency.
A Vietnamese appellate court Thursday upheld the sentence for blogger Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, who wrote under the name “Mother Mushroom." Quynh had written 18 Facebook posts that constituted propagandizing against the state, the lower court found during a one-day trial in June.
"I think the sentence serves as intimidation for other bloggers,” said Trung Nguyen, international relations dean at Ho Chi Minh University of Social Sciences and Humanities. “I think that the government wants to scare other bloggers. If they continue blogging against the government, they have to pay a very heavy price.”
A steady stream of arrests since at least 2016 shows the state's sensitivity to public perceptions of graft and government inefficiency, experts say. But some say the internet criticism may eventually prod officials to run a cleaner government.
Crackdown without censorship
Vietnam lacks an internet censorship effort on China’s scale, though nations have one-party, Communist rule. Unlike China, the Southeast Asian country neither filters websites nor blocks foreign social media networks such as Facebook.
But Vietnamese authorities watch online content for posts that “conduct propaganda against the state” in violation of the penal code.
In June the Ministry of Public Security proposed a 'Law on Cybersecurity' to give it more power over prohibited content and anti-government activities.
Owners of the country’s ever-popular internet cafes were already required to install monitoring software and make customers show ID for checks by inspectors.
"Vietnam has been taking determined steps, passing a cyber-law before the National Assembly, (and) they brought in draconian restrictions on coffee shops having to monitor people,” said Carl Thayer, Southeast Asia-specialized emeritus professor at The University of New South Wales in Australia. “So it’s always tightening up.”
Bloggers smelled something fishy
Corruption and perception of government inefficiency have become widespread concerns among common Vietnamese, according to a business consultant in Ho Chi Minh City. Land contracts and procurement deals as well as routine traffic stops invite graft.
Transparency International, a nonprofit that tracks graft worldwide, ranked Vietnam at 113th worst of 176 countries and regions evaluated last year for perceptions of corruption.
Quynh fell into a net of high-profile bloggers who were covering perceptions that the state didn't handle a massive toxic chemical discharge well enough last year, scholars believe.
About 80 tons of fish carcasses washed up in four central coast provinces in April 2016, paralyzing the fishing industry. Taiwanese-owned Formosa Ha Tin Steel accepted responsibility in June for discharging toxic industrial waste into the sea. It agreed to pay $500 million for cleanup.
At least 16 other Vietnamese bloggers and pro-democracy activists had been arrested this year as of November, Thayer said.
Some quibbled online with how long it took to resolve the toxic discharge problem and the level of compensation offered people who depended on fishing in the contaminated area.
Last year, Vietnamese authorities arrested 21 internet commentators, Thayer said. Human Rights Watch also logged 36 incidents from January 2015 to April this year of unidentified men in civilian clothes beating rights campaigners and bloggers.
The risk of arrest is growing for “prominent” dissenters to government policy, Nguyen said.
Also last week, a court sentenced 22-year-old blogger and journalist Nguyen Van Hoa to seven years in prison and three years of house arrest on charges he had disseminated propaganda against the state.
Mother Mushroom case
Quynh, who has her own blog and writes for websites run by overseas Vietnamese, often covers human rights issues “with an emphasis on the country's high number of deaths in police custody,” according to the New York-based advocacy group Committee to Protect Journalists.
The 38-year-old activist has also written about land confiscation and freedom of expression, the New York-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch said in a statement Thursday. She had been put under house arrest previously, the group said.
Quynh said during the trial she was innocent.
Mandate to change?
Rather than intensifying surveillance of blogs and social media, Vietnam shows signs of tolerating mild dissent, said Dustin Daugherty, senior associate in business intelligence with the consultancy Dezan Shira & Associates in Ho Chi Minh City.
Local governments may let criticism pass if it’s true, “constructive” and “not too political,” he added. Eventually officials might act by cleaning up graft, he said. It would be tough to build up internet policing as extensive as China’s, he said.
"They can try to police Facebook and arrest people for every small thing, but that’s just not practical,” Daugherty said. “I think (pressure to end corruption) will prompt them in order to stay in the people’s good graces, to be seen as doing a good job to keep morale high.”