Inside Vietnam we have a network to fight for freedom of expression and to try to spread the truth to the world.
Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, in a 2015 interview
A political blogger in a country where political blogging is banned, Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh has been jailed for her dedication to telling the truth.
Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, known online as Me Nam ('Mother Mushroom'), is one of Vietnam's most famous dissident bloggers. On 29 June 2017, she was convicted - under Article 88 of the Penal Code - of "conducting propaganda against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam" and was handed a ten-year prison sentence. Her trial lasted only one day. She had been detained incommunicado since 10 October 2016.
Quynh, whose online name comes from her youngest daughter's nickname ('Mushroom'), has been blogging since 2006. She writes about Vietnam's social injustices, political issues and environmental problems, and is also one of the co-founders of the Vietnamese Bloggers Network. Quynh posts both to her own blog and to exile-run platforms such as Dan Lam Bao. She has received numerous prizes for her work, including the 2010 Hellman/Hammett Award, the 2015 Civil Rights Defender of the Year award and the 2017 International Women of Courage Award.
Quynh's work is of vital importance in Vietnam, where the media is tightly controlled and political dissent is not tolerated. The internet provides her (and other dissidents) with the only effective platform for bypassing state censorship and communicating criticisms of the government directly to the public.
It should come as no surprise, then, that Vietnam's authoritarian government works hard to restrict the freedom of the internet. The Ministry of Public Security has a dedicated internet monitoring unit which seeks, through a mixture of surveillance and regulation, to control the online activities of Vietnam's citizens. The government has issued a number of regulations curtailing online free speech, including the 2008 Ministry of Information Circular No. 7 (which bans bloggers from posting about politics, state secrets and national security), and the 2010 order to install internet monitoring software in computers in all internet cafes in Hanoi. Also, anyone visiting an internet café has to provide photo identification and has their online activities logged by the café's owner.
Before her arrest in 2016, the Vietnamese authorities had been harassing Quynh for years: at various times she had been assaulted, threatened and banned from travelling because of her blogging. In 2009, after she posted an entry criticising government foreign policy regarding a territorial dispute with China, she was placed in detention and questioned for nine days; she was also pressured to shut down her blog. Following her release, Quynh was subjected to highly intrusive surveillance by the authorities.
This surveillance was part of a two-pronged attack that the government launched against bloggers and internet activists (at home and in exile) in 2010. The strategy combined old-fashioned intimidation techniques - at least seven bloggers were detained during the first two months of this campaign - with 21st century digital tactics. The latter included cyber attacks on critical blogs and the use of malware to infect and monitor the computers of dissident bloggers; the authorities also used these infected computers to launch distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks on other machines. Neel Mehta, blogging for the Google Security Team, estimated that tens of thousands of computers could have been affected.
At the time of her 2016 arrest, Quynh was visiting the jailed activist Nguyen Huu Quoc Duy. Police reportedly forced Quynh into a car and drove her to her home. There, they confiscated her mobile phone, computer equipment and placards protesting a recent toxic waste spill. She was then transferred to a police detention centre, charged with "conducting propaganda" and held incommunicado without access to her lawyer until nine days before her trial in June 2017.
News of the arrest outraged the international rights community. Within days, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, called for the charges to be dropped and for Quynh to be released. In March 2017, five UN Special Rapporteurs issued a joint statement condemning the charges and the harsh conditions in which the blogger was being held.
Just days before Quynh's trial, her mother said that, in addition to being prevented from visiting her daughter in jail, she too had been subjected to surveillance.
Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh is made of resilient stuff. Where others might have buckled under pressure from the authorities, she refused to be silenced. As a 2015 interview demonstrates, both her motives and her awareness of the risks have always been clear:
"The role of the Vietnamese Bloggers Network is to try to connect all bloggers so that we can protect ourselves and raise our voice together. It means that inside Vietnam we have a network to fight for freedom of expression and to try to spread the truth to the world. I think I put my family and neighbours in a [difficult] situation when I raise my voice. People ask me, 'Why do you do that? Why don't you stay silent like others and live a normal life?' [We] have a role: to publish the truth...I do this for my children's future."
According to her lawyer, Quynh had 15 days from the date of her 29 June conviction to appeal.