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January 06 2011


Vietnam Fighting a Losing Battle Against Free Speech Online

Last October, I had the opportunity to spend almost three weeks traveling through Vietnam, from Ha Long Bay to the Mekong Delta. The breakfast rooms I dined in were always stocked with copies of the government-run English-language daily, the Viet Nam News -- and on its sunny front page, the news is always good.

One typical issue heralded plans from the Central Committee of the Communist Party for "improving the competitiveness of enterprises."

"Production forces must be developed to a high-tech level while improving the production relations and socialist-oriented market institutions," it said.

Digital media occupy a critical position in the party's "high-tech" plans. The government has been building out the country's media infrastructure at a rapid pace. Internet subscriptions leapt from 200,000 in 2000 to 8 million in 2010. By 2020, they are projected to rise to more than 17 million, and the Ministry of Communications hopes that the country will break into the world's top 60 countries for web penetration.

But the same issue of the Viet Nam News sounded a darker note on media a few pages later, warning that young Vietnamese were using "creative measures" to dodge a new law that "aims to limit online gaming." According to the article, Vietnamese teens favored violent games such as Red Alert, Left4Dead, and Call of Duty: Black Ops. (One can imagine why Vietnam's elders might not favor a first-person shooter game that sends virtual CIA agents to targets in Cold War theaters including Vietnam...)

"The curfew was issued following complaints about the negative effects online games were having on youth, including addiction and rising school violence," the story read. On the following page a survey reported, "Social networking is fine, but do not forget the downside."

Playing Both Sides

I had long been aware of government crackdowns on the country's online media, but when talking to Vietnamese I learned of fine points missing from the general debate. Like China, its giant neighbor to the north, Vietnam has tried to play both sides of the fence on the questions of media development and censorship. As Simon Roughneen's post for MediaShift pointed out last month, the Vietnamese government has invested considerable time and resources in restricting the impact of Facebook.


At the same time, it's a mistake to imagine Vietnam as a living under total media control. Instead, a combination of rapid technological and economic advances have opened vast new avenues of information for the new middle-class -- even as the government pursues its cat-and-mouse game with online dissent.

After the U.S.-Vietnam War ended in 1975, the country went through a period of devastating famine and hardship. Vast expanses of Vietnam's territory were blighted by lethal defoliants, military contamination and landmines, and new victims of this bitter legacy still emerge every day. But the economic disaster proved more tractable; within a few decades it gave way to a phase of astonishingly rapid growth.

The Vietnamese Communist Party may have maintained a tight grip on local news outlets, but at the same time it laid the groundwork for an educated consumer society with a hunger for information. Government projects included a national literacy campaign that boosted adult literacy from under 75 percent to over 95 percent within 20 years.

Many media outlets are booming -- but this category does not include the state-run, propaganda-based newspapers. In a forthcoming study from the World Association of Newspapers, Catherine McKinley reports that these publications are losing circulation and advertising revenues at the same time they are experiencing increasing pressure to become more independent of government subsidies.

Cable TV Growth

Cable television, on the other hand, is growing rapidly, especially in the cities. I spoke about it with Ly, a Hanoi intellectual from a Communist Party family whose name has been changed to protect him from government retaliation.

"What do we watch? Everything! CNN International, the BBC, the Discovery Channel -- you name it," he said.

Ly explained that the Vietnamese government permitted news and information on most international topics, but blocked information related to the area of greatest concern: criticism of the Vietnamese government and its policies, especially from exile communities abroad. To accomplish this, cable operators work with a five-minute delay that allows government censors to filter offending content.

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Ly's point shed some light on the great Vietnamese Facebook controversy. During my trip to a half-a-dozen Vietnamese cities, I was able to pull up Facebook in some places (including noodle shops with WiFi), but not in others. When I checked online comments, I saw that the blocked materials included Facebook groups organized by Vietnamese exiles in the U.S. On the other hand, even from my noodle shop outposts, I was able to access an in-country Facebook group that promoted environmental protection as a government-approved youth project.

Unauthorized environmentalists have met a different response. As Roughneen pointed out on MediaShift, the government took harsh measures against two Vietnamese blogs, Blogosin and Bauxite Vietnam, that criticized its plans for a China-led bauxite-mining project in the Central Highlands. (China, which occupied Vietnam many times over the past millennium, appears to be far more unpopular among today's Vietnamese than the U.S.) Investigations of the incident have contributed more details on the full scope of the attack.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists's Shawn Crispin, "Vietnam's government actively promotes Internet usage to modernize the economy, but at the same time cracks down on bloggers who post views critical of the government and its policies."

Government Hacking

Danny O'Brien, CPJ's Internet advocacy coordinator, told me that the government launched "a directed hacking attack on Blogosin, which crashed the site and led to its creator announcing his retirement from reporting."

According to O'Brien, "The sophistication of surveillance and attacks on Vietnamese online media already exceed anywhere else in the world, including China. In early 2010, websites covering the bauxite issue were taken offline by denial-of-service attacks (DDoS)." The thousands of computers used in this attack were controlled by a large domestic "botnet" of computers infected by a specific kind of malware. Investigators at Google and McAfee discovered the source: A Trojan concealed in the software downloaded by many Vietnamese to allow them to enter native text accents when using Windows computers."

George Kurtz, McAfee's chief technology officer, said the attackers first compromised www.vps.org, the website of the Vietnamese Professionals Society, and replaced the legitimate keyboard driver with a Trojan horse.

From the Vietnamese news consumer's perspective, the danger lies less in accessing proscribed sites than in the later repercussions. According to Ly, the government monitors both home computers and accounts used in public spaces to see who is accessing the critical sites over time -- and then takes action.

"They follow your usage over a period of time, and then the police show up at the door," he said.

We can't underestimate the suffering -- to say nothing of the nuisance -- inflicted by Vietnam's cyber-cop crackdowns. But at the same time, it appears they're fighting a losing battle. Vietnam's media audience is moving online rapidly, partly because they are constantly learning new techniques for outmaneuvering the authorities -- and partly because the Communist Party's traditional news media have failed to hold on to their audience and advertising base.

Furthermore, technology is accelerating change: Vietnamese cell phone penetration already stands at over 111 million (in a country of under 90 million), and news will be even harder to control as it continues to migrate on to mobile platforms.

As one Vietnamese newspaper editor put it: "Things are changing. We have more freedom in our online edition, and that's where our readership is going. We just need more skills to produce the stories."

Anne Nelson is an educator, consultant and author in the field of international media strategy. She created and teaches New Media and Development Communications at Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) and teaches an international teleconference course at Bard College. She is a senior consultant on media, education and philanthropy for Anthony Knerr & Associates. She is on Twitter as @anelsona, was a 2005 Guggenheim Fellow, and is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

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December 26 2010


Online Censorship Grows in 2010, Showing Power of Netizens

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Despite some good PR for online freedom this year, online censorship grew and became more subtle in 2010. Online propaganda remains strong within countries like China and Iran, where media censorship is everywhere and the governments have mastered online censorship tools. These countries are as efficient as hacktivists when it comes to controlling information.

China and Vietnam remain among the most repressive countries, with 77 and 16 netizens in jail, respectively (read our recent report on Vietnam here). Thailand is unmerciful when it comes to lese-majeste laws (also read our recent report about how this law is being abused). And a new player, Venezuela, is on the verge of adopting a bill that will introduce Internet filtering and a range of penalties for online media for vaguely worded offenses.

Democracies such as France are also taking further steps to implement a legal framework for online filtering. The French government is working on an ineffective and dangerous online filtering system that could jeopardize the work of journalists and bloggers in the name of fighting child pornography.

Overall, netizens continue to be victims of threats and unfair trials and arrests. In just one example, a 28-year-old Egyptian human rights activist was beaten to death by police in Alexandria on June 6.

But along with the setbacks, 2010 saw a few high profile cases that hinted at an improving state of affairs for online freedom. The positive developments include Egyptian blogger Kareem Amer being set free in November after completing a four-year jail sentence, Turkey ending its two-and-a-half-year ban on YouTube in the spring 2010, and Turkmenistan, which has been called the "European North Korea," began to slowly open up to the Internet.

As of today, 112 netizens are in jail. This is an improvement over the 151 that were arrested in 2009. So does that mean things are getting better?

Netizens and the Public Interest


Despite the strengthening of online propaganda and the growing expertise being developed by what we at Reporters Without Borders call the Enemies of the Internet, netizens keep finding ways to practice online freedom of expression even in the most repressive countries. In 2010 netizens proved the essential role they play in repressive societies. In China and Russia, netizens denounced corruption by local authorities and made important information available to their fellow citizens.

Overall, the environment, corruption, health care and politics remain the main topics focused on by the netizens defended by Reporters Without Borders. For example, in China, the activist Zhao Lianhai created a website to detail the effect that contaminated milk powder sold from Chinese company Sanluon had on young children. An estimated 300,000 children in China were made ill, 50,000 were hospitalized and at least six newborn babies died as result of consuming the milk powder. One of Lianhai's children was made ill by the milk powder, and he used the website to urge parents to bring a class action suit against those responsible. In the end, Lianhai was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison for "inciting social unrest."

Netizens and the Law


Because the Internet is still a vague legal notion in many of the countries, it has always been easy for repressive regimes to convict netizens on vague charges. As an example, netizens belonging to minorities can be accused of "separatism," and using the Internet and social media can be considered activities aimed at overthrowing the government.

2010 was no stranger to legal absurdity. In Azerbaijan, two well-known bloggers Adnan Hajizade and Emin Mili were released after spending more than a year in jail for "hooliganism." This was because they went to the police to report after they were assaulted in a restaurant by two men. In Egypt, blogger Ahmed Hassan Basiouny will be tried by court martial for creating a Facebook page that offered advice and information to young people thinking of enlisting in the Egyptian army.

Internet Companies: Accomplices?

When Google decided to withdraw its email services from China after being a victim of cyberattacks, the issue of corporate responsibility gained worldwide attention. Later in the year, Research In Motion (RIM), the Canadian manufacturer of the BlackBerry smartphone, was involved in a situation that showed we cannot expect technology companies to respect human rights. The company has been under intense pressure from several governments to allow access to encrypted BlackBerry communications, among other requests. The nature of the agreements made between RIM and these governments remains unclear due to conflicting statements from the parties. Reporters Without Borders has called for more transparency so that users know exactly what's going on.

Compared with the past decade, authorities and governments have never put as much energy into attempts to control online content. But this is good news. It illustrates that online free speech is spreading and netizens are winning. The battle is not lost in advance, but it is still far from being lost.

Photo of tainted milk event by jiruan via Flickr

Note that on December 30 Reporters Without Borders will publish its annual round up for 2010, which presents the number of bloggers attacked, arrested and jailed, as well as the number of countries who practice a form of Internet censorship.

Clothilde Le Coz has been working for Reporters Without Borders in Paris since 2007. She is now the Washington director for this organization, helping to promote press freedom and free speech around the world. In Paris, she was in charge of the Internet Freedom desk and worked especially on China, Iran, Egypt and Thailand. During the time she spent in Paris, she was also updating the "Handbook for Bloggers and Cyberdissidents," published in 2005. Her role is now to get the message out for readers and politicians to be aware of the constant threat journalists are submitted to in many countries.

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December 21 2010


Vietnam Pushes Facebook Clone to Control Online Speech

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Social Media content on MediaShift is sponsored by the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships, a program offering innovative and entrepreneurial journalists the resources of Stanford University and Silicon Valley. Learn more here.

HANOI, VIETNAM - Inside one of Hanoi's more than 3,000 online gaming houses, gamers clad in coats and scarves pass the hours shooting at each other on their screens, oblivious to the wintry gray and 10 celsius evening outside. This is southeast Asia, but the French colonial architecture and the proliferation of tourist-market socialist kitsch -- all covered by a wet blanket autumn gloom -- give the place a slightly European feel.

With the Vietnamese economy growing at an average of seven percent per year over the past decade, and companies such as Microsoft and Intel announcing major investments, there is a limit to how European the ambiance is. There's no downturn or recession here. Although average per capita incomes are little over $1,100 per year, Vietnam is moving up the international economic ranks.


The growth of online technology and Internet usage in the country is a signal that change is taking place. According to the government, about 25 percent of Vietnam's nearly 90 million people use the Internet. By comparison, I found it extremely difficult to find cafés or bars with WiFi access when walking around Rome last April. In a stretch from the Colosseum to St.Peter's Basilica, the well-worn tourist and pilgrim hub of the Eternal City, I counted five places with WiFi. Yet in downtown Hanoi, almost every decent-sized hotel or eatery has fast and free WiFi. It is a flip of a coin as to which place has the better food, however.

Facebooking Vietnam

Back inside the gaming house, I asked the manager (who requested his name not be published) how to access Facebook. I saw that a few of the gamers take a break from shooting down Japanese World War II soldiers in order to log in to the social networking site. Facebook is blocked in Vietnam, though no official explanation has been offered by the authorities as to why. Nonetheless, the gamers on downtime were doing any of a number of things that apparently all Facebookers do, such as paying undue attention to pictures of cute young women among their contacts, or posting insulting remarks on their friend's pages.

The manager's answer came with with an air of incredulity, and a good measure of self-satisfaction. "We just change the DNS," he said.

The likely reason for the blocking of Facebook is the upcoming Five Year Congress of the ruling Communist Party. A one-party state, the Vietnamese government harbors no dissent, and over the past two months, 20 activists, lawyers, bloggers and religious minority figures have been arrested or jailed for various forms of alleged sedition or threats to national security. Some were denied access to legal representation at what looked like little more than show trials. Human rights groups and overseas Vietnamese say the government is trying to shut up any and all opposing voices in advance of the Congress, when a new leadership could emerge.

Removing Facebook from the equation could be a help to the government's agenda. Blogging has become increasingly popular in Vietnam, and one cause celebre has been a controversial bauxite mine in the country's Central Highlands. Writers criticizing the government's policy have been arrested, while others remain under surveillance. The government has tried, unsuccessfully, to close down one vocal website featuring blog posts flaying the authorities for allegedly kowtowing to China over the project, while anonymous cyber-vandals launched distributed denial-of-service (DDOS) hack attacks on some of the critical blogs and websites.

Mainstream media in Vietnam is affiliated with the government or the ruling Communist Party, and state censors control what can and cannot be said. So online content offers a new, more nimble and fast-paced challenge to the authorities.

Government-Run Facebook Clone

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In trying to take on Facebook, the government has launched its own social networking website, which is said to be the country's biggest-ever IT project. Users have to register with their official ID details, meaning that the government can monitor content and activity on the site.

Vietnam currently has 1.8 million Facebook users and the number of account holders has doubled in the past six months. In absolute and relative numbers, Vietnam is well back in the southeast Asian social networking league. Indonesia has the world's second-biggest Facebook user base after the U.S, with over 32 million users, while almost 20 percent of the citizens in the Philippines are on Facebook. That said, Vietnamese seem to be taking to the social networking giant, meaning that the government faces a challenge to get people away from Facebook and onto go.vn.

I asked the gaming room manager what he thought of go.vn. Nose and brow furrowed, he asked, "What is that?" I asked around the shop, and all but two of the nineteen gamers said much the same.

Big brother might have to work hard to make new friends here.

Photo of traffic in Hanoi by Simon Roughneen

Simon Roughneen is an Irish journalist currently in southeast Asia. He writes for Financial Times, Los Angeles Times, Asia Times, The Irrawaddy, ISN, South China Morning Post and others. He is a radio correspondent affiliated to Global Radio News and has reported for RTÉ, BBC, CBS, CBC Canada, Fox News, and Voice of America. He has worked in and reported from over 30 countries.

news21 small.jpg

Social Media content on MediaShift is sponsored by the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships, a program offering innovative and entrepreneurial journalists the resources of Stanford University and Silicon Valley. Learn more here.

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July 27 2010


Another wartime disconnect

We're in the midst of another wartime disconnect, though it's different this time around.

During the Vietnam War, the disconnect was between the government and its citizens. With the publishing of the Pentagon Papers, the press solidified a long-suspected belief that the government, through its spokespersons and the military, was misleading the public about the prosecution of the war.

Because they were published in 1973, the Pentagon Papers were late to the game, so to speak, to affect public opinion about the war. Yet they helped turn Americans away from their government: Americans knew their government had failed them, and since then, but for times of extreme crisis, Americans haven't trusted their government to make best-interest decisions.

Today there is another disconnect, highlighted by Wikileaks' publication of tens of thousands of documents purporting to show that the war in Afghanistan is going much worse and with much more innocent bloodshed than the government has admitted. Wikileaks frames this documentation similar to that of the Pentagon Papers, claiming that there's dissonance in what the government is saying and what the public now knows.

But there's not.

The disconnect, instead, is entirely within the public. The unsavory work of special forces, the unnecessary death of civilians, the unpalatable role of Pakistan in propping up the Taliban: all of these were already well documented. The public, however, simply didn't know or didn't care. The disconnect is between hearing facts and then feeling compelled to act on them.

Thus opens a space for Wikileaks and those like 2010 Knight News Challenge winner Teru Kuwayama, a photojournalist trying to break through the shield of indifference by embedding himself with Marines in Afghanistan to tell stories that Americans will--must--pay attention to. As he told journalism.co.uk yesterday:

We've been in Afghanistan for a decade now, and yet the vast majority of Americans have a very limited sense of what we're doing there. That means we [the media] haven't been doing a very good job. We're now in a situation where our press is in serious decline, at a moment when our nation is escalating a war with tremendous costs. That means the public gets even more disconnected from its military, at a time when it should be the most concerned. I can't tell people what to think about this war, but I believe very strongly that they should be thinking about it.

What the Wikileaks episode illustrates isn't that the American government is lying. Rather, it's that we're bad at hearing and processing the truth. We need more compelling methods of journalistic storytelling--whether Wikileaks' data-and-p.r.-intense version or Kuwayama's intimate photojournalism--in order to engage the public, even or especially when engagement is actually enlistment of the public to do more work for itself.

[Edited to include a correction from David Chandler on the extent to which (even less than I'd originally argued) American opinion on the Vietnam War was affected by the Pentagon Papers.]

November 30 2009


#WANIndia2009: Social media for news orgs – a global perspective

Consider this a trailer for a bigger piece I’ll be posting from the World Association of Newspapers’ (WAN) conference currently taking place in India on how news organisations across the globe are using social media in their newsgathering and distribution.

An interesting case study Journalism.co.uk caught up with was Vietnamese news site VietnamNet. The site breaks certain stories to its Facebook group before publishing it online.

There are certain reasons and benefits of doing this, one of the team behind the site told me: firstly, raw, unedited footage can be posted to Facebook without complaints, while the website requires more editing; the Facebook community is more ready to comment and interact, as well as drive the story forwards.

The site has different responsibilities in terms of what it publishes on VietnamNet and on Facebook and the social network can allow for more freedom of discussion, he added.

More to follow on this from Journalism.co.uk…

All #WANIndia2009 coverage from Journalism.co.uk at this link.

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