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Authorities rein in dissent ahead of Party Congress

Blogger Dieu Cay is still in jail, despite having served out his 30-month sentence
Blogger Dieu Cay is still in jail, despite having served out his 30-month sentence

Days before the opening of the Communist Party Congress, Vietnam issued a new executive decree that gives the authorities greater powers to penalise journalists, editors and bloggers who report on issues deemed sensitive to national security, reports the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). IFEX members say it's just the latest of the many controls on dissent put in place before the week-long congress, which kicked off on 12 January.

"Ultimately, this new decree aims to increase government control over Vietnam's already over-regulated and highly suppressed media," said CPJ. "The language of the decree is overly broad and represents the government's latest use of rule by law justifications to limit press freedom, including over the Internet."

The 44-page decree, due to take effect on 25 February, outlines new fines for journalists who publish articles under pseudonyms or refuse to divulge their news sources. CPJ says it's aimed specifically at the country's burgeoning blogosphere, where many bloggers publish under pseudonyms to avoid possible government reprisals.

It also makes sharp distinctions between the rights of government-accredited journalists and independent bloggers, online reporters and freelancers, says CPJ.

According to Human Rights Watch, there has been a "dramatic spike in repression" in the days leading up to the congress, a key meeting that determines the party's leadership in a secretive process, and chart's the country's course for the next five years.

For instance, in another directive dated 30 December, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung said that "the government at all levels must concentrate on effectively dealing with all complicated and sensitive issues related to ethnic minorities, religion and large groups of petitioners… Do not allow anything complicated to happen so that hostile forces can distort the situation and stir up resistance."

Plus, says Human Rights Watch, there has been "a steady stream" of political trials and arrests of dozens of democracy activists, independent writers, online critics and members of unsanctioned religious groups. More than 400 people are currently imprisoned in Vietnam for the exercise of fundamental rights.

According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), Vietnam is the world's second biggest jailer of cyber dissidents after China - with 16 currently being held. In addition, three journalists - Tran Khai Thanh Thuy, Truong Minh Duc and Nguyen Van Ly - are still in jail in Vietnam.

In Orwellian fashion, Human Rights Watch said, many activists are imprisoned under the penal code on charges of "abusing democratic freedoms" of speech, assembly and association in order to "infringe upon the interests of the state."

In a well-known case, police continue to detain blogger and activist Nguyen Hoang Hai, better known as Dieu Cay, even though he had served out his 30-month sentence on "trumped up" charges, says Human Rights Watch. Dieu Cay, chair of the Free Journalist Network in Vietnam (FJNV), was charged with tax evasion and sentenced to two and a half years in jail after encouraging people to boycott the 2008 Olympic torch relay. He had been under close police surveillance since protesting against China's claim to the disputed Spratly and Paracel Islands.

In another case, the Franco-Vietnamese blogger, Pham Minh Hoang, was detained on 13 August and later charged with conducting activities with the aim of overthrowing the government, and being a member of the Viet Tan opposition party. The authorities accused him of publishing 30 critical articles on his blog (http://www.pkquoc.multiply.com) under the pseudonym of Phan Kien Quoc, and organising a meeting of students with a view to recruiting members to Viet Tan. His wife says he was arrested purely for his opposition to plans for bauxite mining in the High Plateaux region of central Vietnam.

"Crackdowns on peaceful government critics are nothing new in Vietnam," said Human Rights Watch. "There is an ongoing chokehold on political repression that tightens prior to any high-profile event."

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