Vietnam’s Internet decade brings hopes, problems for dissidents

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HANOI (AFP) — Ten years after the Internet went live in Vietnam, the number of Web users in the country has soared, with dissidents using it as a podium and others surfing it to learn about the outside world.

Vietnam’s government says around 18 million people, or more than 20 percent of the population, are using the Internet, numbers that thrust the country into the world top 20 in terms of online penetration.

“A new social space has opened up in reality and virtually,” especially for those aged between 14 and 24, said Vietnam expert Carl Thayer of the Australian Defence Force Academy.

Internet cafes in the main cities are packed with young people addicted to online games or chat. But Net access has also increased the sources of information available to the population.

“The Internet has had a great impact on my life… since I know more people, know more about the world, about other countries I have never been to,” said Tran Nguyen Hung, a 17-year-old student in Hanoi.

“I cannot imagine how my life would be without logging onto the Internet at least once a week.”

The Web has also opened a new space for dissidents in the communist country where traditional media are still heavily controlled.

“The Internet was a crucial catalyst in the emergence of Bloc 8406,” Thayer said, referring to a banned pro-democracy group started after 118 dissidents signed an online manifesto urging an end to the one-party political regime.

Bloc 8406 refers to the date they began their initiative: April 8, 2006.

“The Internet has served as a source of information on topics the government deems too sensitive to discuss openly, such as relations with China or a multiparty system,” Thayer added.

Despite the growth of the Internet, its reach is limited to Vietnam’s cities, with the countryside having little access.

The government also tries to keep close tabs on and control what makes it onto the Net.

Authorities try to manage Internet sites and blogs with the goal of “helping people have access to good and useful information” and limiting misuse, Le Nam Thang, vice-minister of information and communication, told the Vietnam News Agency as the country celebrated a decade online last week.

But “technically, it is difficult to predict or prevent all the poisonous information on the Internet, even with strict cooperation” among the ministries of culture and information, and the police, Mai Liem Truc, a former post and telecommunications minister, told the Tien Phong newspaper.

Media rights group Reporters Without Borders is critical of such controls.

“For 10 years, Vietnam’s network has followed the Chinese example,” the Paris-based group said in a statement. “Censorship hardens on Internet sites dealing with politics and religion, and bloggers suffer the same hardships as journalists.”

Reporter Without Borders said it hoped the situation could have improved when the communist country joined the World Trade Organisation in January.

“But this year Vietnam has seen its worst wave of arrests of cyber-dissidents since 2002,” added the group, which registers eight cyberdissidents currently in jail in Vietnam.

About a week ago, two of them, lawyers campaigning for human rights, had their prison sentences reduced by one year on appeal, but they both still face three or four years in jail.

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