Bangkok - A pioneer of citizens’ journalism in Vietnam is risking 20 years in jail for defending Internet freedom and exposing the draconian censorship laws in this communist party-ruled country.
Nguyen Van Hai, who writes under the pen name ‘Dieu Cay’ (Peasant’s Pipe), has refused to accept the charges brought up against him, limiting the possibility of an acquittal, his lawyers have told human rights groups.
The lawyers fear that if Dieu Cay persists with his attitude, "they would have little chance of obtaining an acquittal or even a light sentence," the Paris-based Vietnam Committee on Human Rights (VCHR) said ahead of his impending trial.
Dieu Cay’s refusal to sign on the dotted line comes as Hanoi gears up to implement in June the new ‘Decree on the Management, Provision, Use of Internet Services and Information Content Online’.
The 60-year-old war veteran has been detained for the past 17 months for postings critical of the Vietnamese government on the Club for Free Journalists (CFJ), a blog established in September 2007 to promote independent journalism in a country where media are in the iron grip of the one-party state.
"He should have never been arrested in the first place," Vo Van Ai, president of VCHR, said in a statement on the charges Dieu Cay faces for violating Vietnamese criminal laws on "spreading propaganda against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam."
The maximum sentence for those charged under this law is 20 years in prison.
"Courts in Vietnam are kangaroo courts because the entire outcome is fixed ahead of the trial. What is decided at the trial is the extent of the sentence," Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch (HRW), the New York-based global rights campaigner, told IPS.
"Nguyen Van Hai may be slapped with the maximum 20-year prison term by refusing to sign any papers that he committed any crime, which rules out the option of negotiating a lower sentence," Robertson said.
The plight of this famous blogger is shared by two other founding members of the CFJ, Phan Thanh Hai, 42, and Ta Phong Tan, 43. The former has been detained for 16 months and the latter for seven months.
The one-day trial for all three scheduled for Apr. 17 was suddenly postponed, a human rights activist said. "The government wanted to avoid negative media coverage ahead of the Apr. 30 (1975) anniversary (when the communist forces finally took complete control of the country after decades of war)."
The state’s prosecutors are armed with 421 blogs posted by all three on the CFJ’s website from September 2007 till October 2010, as these accounts were "distorting the truth (and) denigrating the (communist) party and the state," said a report this month in the state-run ‘Thanh Nien’ newspaper.
That charge runs along lines that the only woman among the victims predicted two years ago.
"The government endlessly repeats that ‘Vietnam respects and promotes human rights’. But the way they have treated me proves that they do the opposite of what they say to the international community," Ta Phong Tan, a former police officer and former communist party member, blogged on Apr.4, 2010.
"Everybody knows that I don’t belong to any organisation, no political party. I don’t call for the overthrow of the regime and I have violated no laws," she wrote in the blog titled: "I am facing a plot (against me)."
"I am just a journalist, a free-thinker ... I denounce anything I believe is unjust, things that my friends and I have suffered directly, and I speak out for ordinary people who are victims of injustice. That is what the state holds against me," she then wrote.
Her words reflect the mission of the CFJ, which broke new ground to tap cyberspace, the only avenue available for free expression. It drew a huge following in the months that followed its launch, because it covered topics that the mainstream media barely touched.
Issues that CFJ took up ranged from local anger at China’s role in a controversial bauxite mine to China’s pressure on Hanoi regarding claims over the South China Sea, growing labour unrest, illegal land confiscation and heavy taxation of the poor.
Vietnam’s relationship with China has been fertile ground for critics who accuse its rulers of kowtowing to the more formidable communist party that governs from Beijing. And blogging has provided Vietnamese an "escape route" to air their views.
"Many blogs vocally supported public protests held in Hanoi last year about Chinese encroachment in the South China Sea," Vo Tran Nhat, executive secretary of Action for Democracy in Vietnam, a Paris-based group of Vietnamese political exiles, told IPS. "They were surprisingly bold in their criticism of the government and the party."
The CFJ was a new phenomenon in Vietnam and the authorities took some time before striking out at these pioneers of blogging in the country, said Robertson of HRW, whose organisation informed the European Union earlier this year of the 33 bloggers and rights activists convicted in 2011 "of crimes for expressing their political and religious beliefs."
Such crackdowns come at a time when Internet usage in Vietnam is growing. "Internet penetration grew to 24.2 million users, representing 28 percent of the population," the Committee to Protect Journalists, a New York-based media rights campaigner, said in its annual report last year.
But the space for bloggers is bound to shrink further, warns another media rights watchdog, Reporters Without Borders (RSF), once the Decree on the Management, Provision, Use of Internet Services and Information Content Online is implemented.
"(It) would increase online censorship to an utterly unacceptable level and exacerbate the already very disturbing situation of freedom of expression in Vietnam," RSF added in a mid-April statement. "It could criminalise any expression of dissident views and reporting of news that strays from the Communist Party official line."