(Bangkok) – Vietnamese authorities should drop all charges and immediately release bloggers Nguyen Huu Vinh (also known as Ba Sam) and Nguyen Thi Minh Thuy, Human Rights Watch said today. The two were arrested on May 5, 2014, for publishing articles on the Internet, and charged under article 258 of the penal code for “abusing democratic freedoms to infringe on the interests of the state.”
“Vietnam’s arrests of more bloggers for allegedly abusing ‘democratic freedoms’ is a cynical and chilling move,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “Vietnam should immediately drop these bogus charges, and then take the next step by scrapping article 258 and other provisions of the penal code regularly used to punish free expression.”
Bloggers Nguyen Huu Vinh and Nguyen Thi Minh Thuy are among an increasing number of peaceful critics charged under article 258. During the first three months of 2014, at least six other people have been convicted for the same charge, including bloggers Truong Duy Nhat and Pham Viet Dao, and ethnic minority rights activists Thao Quan Mua, Duong Van Tu, Ly Van Dinh, and Hoang Van Sang.
Nguyen Huu Vinh, 58, is a former police officer and a Communist Party member who previously worked at the Committee for Vietnamese Overseas. His father Nguyen Huu Khieu was a former member of the Central Committee of the Vietnamese Communist Party, Police Director of inter-zone 4, which covered a number of provinces in central Vietnam, and former Vietnam ambassador to the Soviet Union. After leaving his government job in the mid-1990s, Nguyen Huu Vinh studied law. In 2000, Nguyen Huu Vinh founded V-Protection & Investigation Co., Ltd, the first private investigation company in Vietnam. On September 9, 2007, Nguyen Huu Vinh founded the blog Ba Sam (Talking Nonsense) – the mouthpiece of Thong tan xa Via he (the Sidewalk News Agency) on the former social media platform Yahoo 360.
There is little public information available about Nguyen Thi Minh Thuy, 34. According to an unconfirmed source, she may have worked at V-Protection & Investigation Company and assisted Nguyen Huu Vinh in running the blog Ba Sam.
Using the motto “Pha vong no le” (breaking the slavery ring), the main goal of Ba Sam is to bring news from a variety of perspectives to its readers. Ba Sam provides links to “hot news” (sometimes accompanied by short comments from the blog’s administrators) about politics, economics, culture, society, environment, and world events from various sources, including Vietnam state-controlled media as well as individual blogs. It advised readers on how to bypass Vietnam government-installed firewalls to read news published outside of Vietnam, including articles on regularly blocked websites such as Radio Free Asia, Voice of America (Vietnam service), the British Broadcasting Corporation (Vietnam service), and other websites. Ba Sam also published critical commentary and Vietnamese translations of overseas articles related to Vietnam’s social and political situation.
Within just a few years, Ba Sam became one of the most important blogs written from inside Vietnam, and saw its readership grow exponentially. As of 2014, it was accessed by tens of thousands of Vietnamese readers daily, and most likely has a cumulative total of millions of views from people in dozens of countries around the world. Given this incredible success, the Ba Sam blog also suffered numerous online attacks including denial of service attacks and hacking. Vietnam state media criticized the blog by name and the authorities quietly demanded that its founder remove certain news items from the blog. In September 2012, five years after the birth of Ba Sam, Nguyen Huu Vinh announced that he would end his direct involvement with the blog in order to avoid “the heated atmosphere” developing, leaving the blog to be run by the blog editor, Ngoc Thu, and other assistants.
On April 10, 2014, due to various online attacks, Ba Sam was temporarily forced to stop posting news. The blog partially resumed on May 5 as a protest against the arrests of Nguyen Huu Vinh and Nguyen Thi Minh Thuy. Many other independent bloggers and social groups in Vietnam have already voiced opposition against the arrests.
“The government should recognize it cannot drag the Vietnamese people by force back into a pre-Internet world where state controlled media was completely dominant,” said Robertson. “The government’s repressive approach will only make people more determined in demanding their rights to freedom of information and expression.”