Twenty months ago, I was approached by a member of the team that puts out the Anh Ba Sam blog, Vietnam’s leading source of "alternative news." Would I mind, they asked, if they posted a Vietnamese translation of a story that I’d written on the deepening South China Sea crisis.
I agreed, and there began a relationship that has made my writings on contemporary Vietnam far better known to readers there and in the Vietnamese diaspora than to the several thousands who read me in Asia Sentinel and other regional online publications.
Lately — up to March 8, anyway — there has been a lively debate on the Ba Sam blog about how the Vietnamese Constitution ought to be revised. There’s nothing strange there; the National Assembly is going to vote on a new text in the fall, and in anticipation it has called for the people to express their ideas.
Taking the legislature at its word, commentaries posted on Anh Ba Sam have tilted sharply toward freeing the current constitution’s guarantees of human rights from a host of eviscerating national security-based limitations. There’s 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.
That nearly ended on March 8, when the Ba Sam blog was thoroughly hacked. Several years’ reportage and commentary were deleted. The e-mail accounts of the blog’s editorial team were also compromised. The Ba Sam team has so far been unable to regain control of wordpress.anhbasam.com. That’s a manageable tragedy, however. All but a few days’ content was backed up on offshore servers.
Then, however, on March 13, the hackers struck again, posting on the website an apologia attributed to the blog’s managing editor, cobbled together from e-mailed messages and photos. Like all effective propaganda, it was a mixture of fact and fiction. A naive reader might conclude that the Anh Ba Sam team are in fact renegades and grudge-bearing reactionaries based in the United States and dedicated to the overthrow of the Hanoi regime.
That’s a considerable exaggeration. They are trenchant critics of the regime, for sure, but Anh Ba Sam’s first priority has been to publish an objective summary of newsworthy events in and about Vietnam. It’s up with the news 24/7. As might be expected, the blog has given particular emphasis to the stories that Vietnam’s state-supervised media has been unable to report. Its daily digest is the hook that has caught the attention of 100,000-plus regular readers.
Additionally, the Anh Ba Sam blog has published a great deal of commentary, mostly by a distinguished stable of Vietnamese academics, old revolutionaries and retired officials. And it also has published my essays every three or four weeks on problems of environmental governance, media culture, economic policy gone awry, China’s moves to turn its farcical South China Sea claim into fact, and the fumbling efforts of the regime and ruling party to reform land policy, right a faltering economy and rewrite the nation’s constitution.
The hacking of Anh Ba Sam got to me directly and personally, and that’s why I’m writing this in first-person. We’ve had a seriously professional relationship. The Ba Sam team thought my stories were worth the attention of its Vietnamese readers. And, having learned that whatever I wrote was inevitably going to appear in translation somewhere in the Vietnamese blogosphere, I wanted whatever that was attributed to me at least to be what I meant to say. Our arrangement was that Ba Sam volunteers would send their translations to me, and with help from the native speaker who consented to marry me 44 years ago, I’d check that they’d got it right.
In September 2012, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung issued "guidance" that authorized Vietnamese cyberpolice to go after blogs that posted "slanderous, fabricated, distorted and false" reports on the nation’s leaders. At the time, Dung was fighting to keep his job, and it was tempting to regard his order simply as a riposte to intra-party rivals’ sponsorship of scurrilous anti-Dung blogs.
Six months later, however, someone has taken down Vietnam’s best blog, one that had no particular animus for Dung. It was the system that Anh Ba Sam subjected to daily, withering scrutiny, not Dung himself. With tighter security and another URL, wordpress.anhbasam04.com, it is being reconstituted, and so the cat-and-mouse game between Vietnam’s community of free journalists and its internal security agencies goes on.
What’s evident is that like the weeds in my garden, Vietnam’s free online press can be clobbered from time to time but not eliminated. Some bloggers simply give up rather than serve time in prison or lose their livelihoods. Many more blogs spring up to take their place. No matter how sophisticated the Vietnamese cybercops become, however, Internet-enabled dissent is beyond their ability to control. In the internet era, the Hanoi regime might have better success reasoning with its critics rather than trying to suppress them.
(David Brown is a retired US diplomat with extensive experience in Vietnam and a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel.)