Viet Blogger Heads to Court

The Hanoi People's Court is expected to take up the case on Wednesday of perhaps Vietnam’s most influential independent blogger, Nguyễn Hữu Vinh (pen name Anh Ba Sam or “Brother Gossip” and his administrative assistant, Nguyễn Minh Thúy, on charges of “misusing democratic freedom to encroach on State interests [and] the legitimate rights of groups and individuals” according to the Vietnamese Criminal Code.

The trial begins as the US, Vietnam and other eleven signatories of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, the omnibus trade bill pact, begin their ratification processes, which has yet to be ratified by the US Congress, but which Vietnam has agreed to sign onto, and which contains unprecedented language that attempts to protect human rights in the member countries committed to becoming signatories.

The An Ba Sam trial thus becomes a bellwether on whether Vietnam's new leadership is committed to the protection of dissent. The country remains a one-party socialist republic with the judiciary falling under the leadership of the Communist Party. Judges and procurators are selected from party membership. While the judiciary is nominally accountable to the National Assembly, theoretically the highest institution of government power in the country, it is the party that holds sway.

The two bloggers are trenchant critics of the regime, to be sure, but Anh Ba Sam’s first priority has been to publish an objective summary of newsworthy events in and about Vietnam. It has translated and published many reprints of Asia Sentinel stories by David Brown, a retired US diplomat with continuing interest in the country

The arrest of Vinh and Thuy in May 2014 came in the context of acute tension between Vietnam and China after Beijing moved its first deep-water drilling rig into the disputed South China Sea and prohibited all marine vessels entering into a one mile radius of the Haiyang Shiyou 981′s drilling work. Calls for an anti-China protest rally were made here and there in the Vietnamese blogosphere.

Some Vietnamese dissidents regarded the bloggers' arrest as evidence that the Vietnamese government was “yielding submission” to its Chinese counterpart by detaining a famous “anticommunist China” blogger.

Article 258 of the Vietnamese Constitution describes a crime of “abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the State.” It has frequently been used to imprison bloggers and democracy activists in Vietnam in the recent years.

The Anh Ba Sàm blog first went online in 2007 with two sorts of fare: an objective commentary on newsworthy events in and about Vietnam and thoughtful commentary by a distinguished stable of contributors. It has consistently been one of a fairly small Vietnamese blogs that maintain high journalistic standards.

ABS was first hacked in November 2010 by unknown assailants, and again in June 2011. The damage was repaired and the blog soon went back on line. Three years ago, on March 13, 2013, ABS was hacked again. This time its attackers hijacked the files and changed all the passwords. Its US-based managing editor, Dinh Ngoc Thu, was subsequently the object of a scurrilous ad feminem attack cobbled together from photos taken out of context from her personal laptop files.

The 2013 attack came amid a lively debate on the Ba Sam blog about how the Vietnamese Constitution ought to be revised. Although the National Assembly called for the people to express their ideas, the final text, enacted late in 2013, “failed to address popular aspirations for change and reform, according to Human Rights Watch, which called on the country’s donors and development partners to redouble their efforts to press for constitutional and legal reforms to protect basic rights, such as freedom of expression and association.

Nonetheless, taking the legislature at its word, commentaries posted on Anh Ba Sam tilted sharply toward freeing the current constitution's guarantees of human rights from a host of eviscerating national security-based limitations. There has also been considerable support for diluting the Communist Party's monopoly of political decision-making and freeing the courts and the mainstream media from a surfeit of political instruction.

Things reverted to normal by June 2013 when An Ba Sam again began publishing news updates and commentary on a daily basis at new, more secure websites. Then, on May 5, 2014, Vinh, the blog's founder and editor – a retired police officer – was arrested at his home and his hard drive and other files taken as evidence. Also arrested was Vinh's assistant, Thúy.

In fact, since October 2012, Vinh had turned over day to day management of ABS to Ms Thu, who has carried on the blog singlehandedly during Vinh's incarceration. When the pressure of managing ABS updates became too great, she elected to drop the daily news summary, reasoning that Vietnam's online public now has access to foreign-originated news on Vietnam from other reliable sources. ABS remains a top source of commentary on events. Its distinguished stable of contributors includes Vietnamese academics, old revolutionaries, independent journalists and retired officials.

"Our target audience," says Ms Thu, "is normal readers living in Vietnam. We provide general news that might be censored by the Vietnamese authorities, advocate for the democracy movement, and help victims of injustice. The blog is independent. We don't support any political parties or groups. We have not accepted financial aid from any individuals, NGOs or political groups."

In the second half of 2015, ABS averaged over 100,000 page views per day.