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Co-Director Trinh Huu Long's interview with PEN America

The interview below is published on 22 March 2017 on PEN America's website.


PEN America’s featured case for March 2017 is the case of bloggers Nguyen Huu Vinh and Nguyen Thi Minh Thuy. Nguyen Huu Vinh, better known as Anh Ba Sam, was arrested on May 5, 2014. His assistant, Nguyen Thi Minh Thuy, was arrested with him. On March 23, 2016, Anh Ba Sam was convicted and received five years in prison. Nguyen Thi Minh Thuy received three years.

You can read more about Anh Ba Sam and Nguyen Thi Minh Thuy, and sign a letter advocating for their release, here.

Today, one year after the Anh Ba Sam court decision, PEN America publishes its interview with Trinh Huu Long, a Vietnamese journalist and human rights lawyer who stepped in to help maintain the “Anh Ba Sam” blog after his fellow bloggers’ arrests. The author of this interview conducted the interview in consultation with PEN America’s Free Expression Program.

In this interview, Trinh explains the danger that Vietnamese bloggers face when they discuss political issues, as well as the state of free expression in the country and his honest views as to how Vietnamese activism is shaped by cultural constraints. Trinh, who now lives outside of Vietnam, discusses his own magazine, Luat Khoa, which independently discusses human rights, democracy, and rule of law in Vietnam.

Trinh Huu Long, co-director of Legal Initiatives for Vietnam.

Prominent Vietnamese bloggers Nguyen Huu Vinh and Nguyen Thi Minh Thuy are now a year into their convictions, having been sentenced for “abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the State, the legitimate rights and interests of organizations and/or citizens.Talk to us about what happens to a blogger who is arrested in Vietnam.

After bloggers Nguyen Huu Vinh and Nguyen Thi Minh Thuy were arrested, I had the privilege of becoming part of the team for his “Anh Ba Sam” blog, and to maintain the blog for a while. I have been closely following their case. In short, there is no due process for those who get arrested in political cases.

Police will come to your house and arrest you without even declaring why you are arrested. Then you might disappear for weeks. In the case of Nguyen Huu Vinh, his family was only informed of his arrest after more than 10 days. In most cases, you will be held incommunicado without family visits or lawyers’ assistance. At the same time, the mainstream media delivers a lot of false reports on your case, saying you conducted propaganda against the state, that you destroyed the image of the country and the Communist Party, and so on.

Your trial will come after months have passed, or in Nguyen Huu Vinh’s case, after almost two years, during which time you will remain in prison. In every case, the trials are closed to the public. Chances are, even the defendants’ family members are not allowed to enter the courtroom. International observers and international press may be allowed to watch your case on a TV screen shown in the room next door.

Inside the courtroom, all the judges and prosecutors are Communist Party members. You and your lawyers are not allowed to talk too much. Your lawyers’ laptops and cellphones are even confiscated by the police before the show trial. Bloggers who are arrested are often sentenced to years of imprisonment; some have been sentenced to 12–16 years. Sometimes your family can visit you in prison; sometimes they are not allowed, and often no one will tell them the reasons for the absence of visitation.

What will keep citizen journalists blogging when the risk of being imprisoned for their views is so high?

When you truly believe in something, it becomes part of you, and it is almost impossible for you to act like you don’t know anything.

Citizen journalists must write and raise their voices because it is just how they are, and they can’t live differently. In the end, we all love our country and our people, and we also care about those whose rights are being violated in other countries. Love will eventually find ways to raise its voice. And we accept whatever the consequences may be. What also motivates us is that we are optimistic that tomorrow will be better. And it is true.

As I understand it, the media and press in Vietnam are under strict government surveillance, which might explain why blogging and social media have become the preferred news sources for many people as well as a platform for freedom of expression. What does it mean to be a writer/blogger in Vietnam?

As long as you are not criticizing the government or the Communist Party of Vietnam, you can enjoy being a writer or a blogger in my country. You can be famous, you can earn a lot of money from Google AdSense or YouTube or advertisers who want you to talk about their products.

Half of our population is using the Internet; that means 45 million people. More than 30 million people are Facebookers. I don’t know how many bloggers are really out there, but there are, of course, a lot. Basically, people are pretty happy with their limited freedom of expression. Many writers and bloggers are well-known because they write about love stories, entertainment articles, or they write about traveling, food, music, movies, business, and so on.

However, as is the case in China and other repressive countries, criticizing the government is not welcome in Vietnam. This December, for example, one very well-known video-blogger got questioned by police about his blogging. His nickname is Dua Leo. He used to be just an entertainment star, a stand-up comedian. But since he started talking about politics and human rights, he has been out of his safe zone. One day after he said exactly this sentence in a
video—“there is no freedom of speech in Vietnam”—he was “invited” to meet with the police.

It is always tough for political bloggers and writers. I am both sad and proud of having friends in prison because they dared to write the truth, writing out their consciences. Many others get harassed and attacked. Very often you can’t even leave your house because there will be a group of plainclothes police sitting in front of your house, not letting you go anywhere. Sometimes, police will even pour glue into your house’s lock to destroy it. But the torment does not stop there. If you can’t go outside, fine, you go back to your computer to check your blog or Facebook, and what you would see are many degrading and foul comments attacking you, written by Internet trolls possibly sponsored by the government.

And still, that’s not the hardest part of the job. You have to also deal with your family and friends, even your close friends. There are almost no parents encouraging writers to take on this job, and most of them don’t even respect the rights for which you are fighting.

It is a matter of Vietnam’s culture that you must listen to your parents, otherwise, you will be tormented mentally and physically. Parents might threaten to kill themselves to stop you from blogging, while others may publicly announce that they no longer accept you as their child. Some parents really have hurt themselves in front of their children. And what would you do when you see your mom crying and suffering all the time because of your work? As for friends, some of them may leave your side. Those things are the hardest part of the job.

The good news is that gradually, there are more and more people accepting and supporting us. Please also note that not all political bloggers and writers have to deal with police the way I just described. The situation is slowly changing.

It’s interesting that you said family and friends and Vietnamese culture as a whole do not encourage writers and bloggers to practice free expression. In a way, this is understandable because of its inherent danger. As a Vietnamese American, I’m curious about how much of our self-oppression is really shaped by our culture, as you said, or by fear. Can you speak more about how Vietnamese culture might discourage activism?

To me, this is the main, the biggest, and the key problem in Vietnam. When we talk about freedom and democracy, we usually talk about the relation between citizens and the government. But the nature of this relationship is based on the country’s culture. What shapes citizens’ attitudes and behaviors toward the government and vice versa? Whether you are a citizen or a government official, you are still Vietnamese, and you are born into that culture.

Vietnam is a society based on patriarchy and collectivism. That means, you must listen to your parents, you must respect elders, you must obey your family’s and community’s rules whether you agree with them or not, and regardless of whether the rules make any sense.

In your family, your father is the supreme leader. He is the law. In your society, your government is the supreme leader. They are the law. So what you can see here is that the society is actually just a larger version of the family.

Living under a dictatorship, people tend to obey the government’s rules without questioning their legitimacy and rationality. Resistance is not encouraged as a matter of course. Your parents understand that, and they want you to also keep silent and avoid opposing the government. If one day you realize something is wrong and start talking about it, the government will not be the one who comes first to confront you. Your father, your mother, your brothers and sisters, your friends will. People tend to disrespect your rights, and they scold you for being different.

Many people say it is the communist culture, blaming the Communist Party for that. But I don’t think that is entirely true. The way we treat each other today is not learned behavior we picked up from the Communists. Rather, it is rooted deeply in our history as a closed society, long before the Communist Party was established in 1930.

Being born into that culture, you follow and act like your parents, you treat others the same way that they treat you. And if you become a government leader, in turn, you will act like a dictator. The dictator in the government is pretty much the same as the dictator in the family.

So to me, that’s the main problem. My theory is, as long as we still have dictators in families, we will have dictators in the government. If it is not the Communists, it will be some other kind of dictatorship.

It is significant to note that not all Vietnamese families are like that. I know many, especially young families, are much more progressive and liberal. The society is slowly opening up. People’s mind-sets are also changing. I am very lucky that my parents have respected and loved me as much as they could, though I know they have been struggling a lot to overcome not only social prejudices but also their personal prejudices and fears.

Can blogging promote social change?

Definitely. I would say bloggers and Facebookers have been playing a significant role in the recent social changes in Vietnam.

People in Vietnam started blogging in the mid-2000s with the Yahoo 360 blog platform. So more than 10 years have passed since the beginning of blogging in Vietnam. When we look back, we realize that our society has changed tremendously.

A blogger named Pham Hong Son was sentenced to five years imprisonment for his writings back in 2003. Tran Huynh Duy Thuc: 16 years (2009). Le Cong Dinh: five years (2009). Dieu Cay: two and a half years (2008) and later 12 years (2012). At that time, these bloggers wrote about freedom of speech, freedom of religion, pluralism, democracy, the rule of law, civil society, separation of power, independence of judges and lawyers, and so on. And they went to jail for years. You could rarely find anyone publicly talking about these things.

Nowadays, people publicly talk about those things every day and try to make them normal ideas in society (they are not normal yet). If you want to find a thousand people who strongly criticize the top leaders every day in Vietnam, I am very sure you can fill up the list very quickly. Even the mainstream media nowadays talks about some of these things I’ve mentioned.

The first citizen protest after the Vietnam War (1954–1975) was in 2007, and it was first initiated by members of an online forum. Four years later, I participated in an anti-China protest which was initiated by Nhat Ky Yeu Nuoc—a pro-democracy Facebook page. Thousands of people went out to the streets in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City to protest every Sunday for two and a half months. And it was the beginning of a new civil society movement where hundreds of people became activists, including me.

We have witnessed how blogging and Facebooking can create social changes. Vietnamese bloggers and Facebookers have saved two wrongfully-convicted death row inmates from being executed at the last minute over the past two years (Ho Duy Hai and Le Van Manh). The Hanoi local government also had to stop cutting 6,700 trees down after a wave of criticism on social media as well as protests back in 2015. Some government officials, including policemen, have been removed from their positions. The government has become more transparent and responsive to their netizens. They have to get used to our presence, and not to ignore us.

You are the editor of Luat Khoa, a news website about law and criminal justice in Vietnam and abroad. Can you tell us what prompted you to launch Luat Khoa? What are some of the challenges you’ve had to face?

I came up with the idea of Luat Khoa when I was in law school in Hanoi, back in 2007. I just wanted people to share knowledge and help each other to achieve a higher level of legal understanding. But then, after I participated in the anti-China protest movement in 2011, I realized very clearly that human rights and the rule of law in Vietnam were in a crisis, and I wanted to fix it. I then wrote a lot of articles for the mainstream media about law, human rights, and politics with the hope that there would be more people understanding what I had understood.

However, I was not satisfied with those articles because of the government’s censorship and the newspapers’ self-censorship. I realized that I had to do it myself, with my own media outlet. And by the end of 2014, along with three other activists, I founded Luat Khoa, and since then, we have been functioning as a professional and independent law magazine. We have freed ourselves from every kind of censorship.

Of course, there is a price for this. A lot of blog posts have been written against us by pro-government bloggers, accusing us of being affiliated with a “terrorist” political party and betraying the country. The same thing has happened with a lot of activists, including prisoners of conscience.

How did you deal with those accusations?

This is about a very fashionable issue: how to deal with fake news. To the accusations of being affiliated with a “terrorist” political party, we confronted them immediately. Learning from other organizations’ experiences, we did not ignore the rumor but knocked it down with facts right at the onset.

We released a statement clarifying that we were an independent organization and not a part of any political organizations. We also repeated this message at other events. The rumor did not stop spreading, because this rumor was an intentional effort by “some people,” but we at least gained a lot more trust from ordinary readers.

The reason why people trust us, rather than the rumors about us, is that our approach and language are hugely different from that of a political party. We deliver multidimensional reports, analysis, and commentaries in a scientific way, not a political way. We provide knowledge and constructive contents. This is also why, despite our being accused by the Internet trolls of betraying the country, I believe many people don’t think of us in such a way.

Is there any type of self-censorship that you apply to your blog at Luat Khoa?

As I said, we don’t censor anything. We act as if we have all our human rights guaranteed within Vietnam, and that we just need to exercise them. I like the campaign slogan of Dr. Nguyen Quang A, a leading activist in my country: “Your Right! Use It!”

We write about pluralism, democracy, dictatorship, human rights violations, political trials, censorship, and so on. However, we impose our own standards and strive to be professional, scientific, and rational. We don’t use hate speech. We don’t believe that problems will be solved by hurting each other, including through language. Hate speech, from any side, is therefore totally banned from our magazine. We also “censor” ourselves from using fake news and unconfirmed information. Many contributors have sent us their articles without any references or sources of information used in their writings; we normally do not find these articles meet our standards. Even if they do have references, we still consider very carefully the credibility of their sources.

But overall, with these guidelines in mind, we invite everyone to contribute to Luat Khoa.

What is your long-term hope for the site?

In my vision, Luat Khoa is going to be one of the major newspapers in Vietnam that promotes human rights, the rule of law, and democracy.

I hope that in 20 years, those who read Luat Khoa today, including law students, will become law professors, lawyers, judges, politicians, activists, and journalists, and in turn, they will develop the legal framework and legal culture in Vietnam toward the values of human rights, rule of law, and democracy.

Thank you so much, Long. It was a pleasure to talk to you.