By BEN STOCKING
HANOI, Vietnam (AP) — Last fall, when police clashed with Catholic protesters over confiscated church land, the Vietnamese public didn’t need to rely on the sanitized accounts in the government-controlled media. They could read all about it on the blogs.
The photos and translated Western news reports about last September’s outlawed prayer vigils were posted in a Vietnamese blogosphere where anything goes — from drugs, sex, marriage and AIDS to blunt criticism of the communist government.
Until now the government has generally taken a hands-off attitude. But officials at the Ministry of Information and Communications appear to be losing patience. They say they are preparing new rules that would restrict blogs to personal matters — meaning no politics.
Blogs and unlicensed news Web sites have taken on added weight since a crackdown on journalists cast a chill over Vietnam’s mainstream media.
In June, two journalists who had aggressively covered a major government corruption case were arrested and one of them was sentenced to two years in prison. Four others had their press cards revoked after running front-page stories decrying the journalists’ arrests.
The bloggers were quick to react.
“We fought two wars to free ourselves from the shackles of imperialism and colonialism, all in the hope of having basic human rights,” wrote Vo Thi Hao, a novelist and painter, on her self-titled blog. “Even the French colonial government allowed private media, opposition parties and free expression.”
Such sentiments would never appear in Vietnam’s state-controlled media, which are dominated by admiring stories of the country’s leaders or dull accounts of the bureaucracy at work.
In the reporting of the vigils organized by the Catholic Church to demand the return of lands seized decades ago, the state media portrayed the protesters as lawless, while the bloggers portrayed them as principled and brave.
“I get information from the blogs that I could never find in the state media,” said Nguyen Thu Thuy, a blogger who delves into her religious beliefs and family life. “Everybody has the right to free expression,” she said in an interview.
Roughly 20 million of Vietnam’s 86 million citizens use the Internet, according to the latest government figures. While high-profile bloggers are concentrated in the big cities, cyber-cafes can be found in all but the most remote corners of the country.
Any public criticism of the government would have been unthinkable a few years ago, but today’s bloggers are sometimes scathing.
A popular Ho Chi Minh City blogger known as Osin recently chided Vietnam’s top-ranking officials for chartering airplanes to fly to international meetings.
“A head of state should not use a chartered plane to show off,” he wrote, pointing out that when the prime minister of Thailand visited Vietnam, he came on a commercial flight. “A politician’s reputation does not depend on whether he can fly around in a big plane. It depends on whether he values the taxpayers’ money.”
Information and Communications Ministry officials did not reply to an interview request from The Associated Press.
Vietnam has yet to go as far as neighboring China does in suppressing undesirable Internet content. It blocks some Web sites run by overseas Vietnamese that the government views as a political threat. But it has not hindered access to Yahoo 360, a blogging platform that is extremely popular with young Vietnamese.
“It’s interesting that they’ve chosen not to block it,” said Rebecca MacKinnon, a professor at the University of Hong Kong who has written about China’s Internet policies. “One assumes it’s because they don’t want to deal with the blowback it would cause.”
Still, the government occasionally tries to make an example of those who go too far.
A blogger known as Dieu Cay was charged with tax evasion after encouraging people to protest at the Olympic torch ceremonies in Ho Chi Minh City shortly before the Beijing games last summer. He criticized China’s policies in Tibet and the Spratly Islands, an archipelago in the South China Sea that is claimed by both China and Vietnam.
Vietnam’s government is particularly sensitive to anything it regards as fomenting public protests, and also is wary of upsetting its giant northern neighbor.
Vietnamese bloggers often write confessional postings that have nothing to do with politics.
One named “Sun’s Secret” recently wrote about her upcoming marriage and her fears that she was rushing into it too quickly. “Sometimes I feel like I just want to run away from this relationship,” she confided.
Sun’s Secret also confessed to feeling remorseful because she introduced two friends who slept together and later found out that they were HIV positive.
“Is it my fault?” she asked. “I introduced them.”
Some bloggers say the government has failed to keep up with the spread of blogging, and think it’s too late to roll it back.
“The government doesn’t have the technology or the manpower to control all the bloggers,” read a posting on TTX Vang Anh, a popular self-styled citizens’ “news agency.”