Nguyen Lan Thang

How to change Vietnam by social media


Hi there!

I am Nguyen Lan Thang, a human rights activist from Hanoi. I am well-known simply because I have shot photos of civil society development in Vietnam, a topic that the state-owned media is not allowed to mention. Initially I just posted the photos to my Facebook page. Gradually many bloggers and foreign media agencies were much interested and I sent those photos to them. In other words, I became a source of media agencies which are concerned about the happenings in Vietnam.

Social media network is an extremely important tool for me to express my views at the same time it got me and those who share my views in trouble. I said “trouble” as I have been on the blacklist of public security agency for long. This is because my Facebook posts have defied the one-sided news coverage that the mass media keep providing. I can give you many examples on that. For instance, in a land grab in Van Giang last year, 5000 police were deployed to help property developers evict farmers of their land.

But the state-owned media said it was just an eviction to seize land from ignorant farmers and no one was hurt. A few hours later, I posted to Youtube and Facebook a video footage made by me and a friend of mine showing police putally beating up farmers and journalists. The footage attracted millions of viewers and was shared all over the Internet. The state-owned media could not counter.

When social media grow, the people begin to change their minds. They learn new things which the government has always been trying to hide from them in a systematical way. They begin to learn how to use social media to defend their rights and the government becomes less aggressive when they talks to the public about political issues. As for me, social media are both increasing the number of activists and giving the existing ones a new tool to do their work. Activists like me used to be very few in number and they usually had to pay the price with lengthy prison terms. To me, they are heroes. Nowadays, even a woman in her 70s can use social media to report news and criticize the government. They are now so many activists that the police cannot arrest all.

To counter social media, the government uses firewalls to block Facebook, blogs and any page that speaks out things it considers tot be “not good”. The police keep intimidating, terrorizing with dross, interoogating, even imprisoning those who only criticize the state in a peaceful way. During demonstrations or trials of political dissidents, the police always beat up first of all those who hold cameras or smart phones. Many people were harassed, their cameras and phones were poken by savage plainclothes police. This happens very often, even at this time when I am talking to you. However, so far activists have not had any measure to cope with this situation, though the repressiong keeps going. Such is bloodshed for freedom.

Recently in Vietnam, there emerged new independent writers focusing on environmental health care, cultural and education issues. They don’t give their direct viewpoints on political issues, but their findings are often very interesting and attract great attention from the public and they reinforce the points given by political analysts. Thanks to those articles, the people gradually leran that the problems that the society faces are originated from the undemocratic single-party regime. Civil resistance begins to grow ans most of the famous net writers have become activists who play an important role in connecting people for rising civil campaigns. To fight back activists, the government does not restrict itself to using Article 88 of the Penal Code “propagating against the state”. It also uses Article 258 of this Code on “abusing democratic rights to infringe upon the interest of the State…”. This is a mean to systematically repress freedom of expression and other human rights. To invalidate this Article 258 as well as other abusive articles aimed at arbitrary detention of dissidents, an alliance of net-writers and bloggers was established calling itself “the Network of Vietnamese Bloggers”. This Network is organizing an international advocacy campaign so submit Statement “Anti-258” to international organizations and diplomatic missions. It urges the Vietnamese government to respect citizens’ rights to demonstrate its candidacy commitment for the United Nations Human Rights Council.

The most recent cases of being charged under Article 258 are bloggers Truong Duy Nhat, Pham Viet Ðào and Ðinh Nhat Uy. The “Anti-258 Statement” points out that anyone who uses their blog or social media page to voice their opinions can be arrested. The advocacy campaign has gained the attention ans support from many big international organizations such as HRW, SEAPA, Front Line Defenders, CPJ, Freedom House…

Freedom of expression is one of the most important human rights. If it is restricted, social development will be distorted because there is no one to give feedback on public policies. If freedom of expression is let grow, group interests will be threatened, and the rulers will lose their privileges. That’s why the Vietnamese government, since its making has always sought to inhibit freedom of expression silencing dissident voices, and practicing obsurantism so that it can easily oppress the people. It has done so from the 1950’s by using systematical means of repression. Currently Vietnam has about 800 newspapers and poadcast stations. But all of them are obedient to only one power, that is the Central Department for Propaganda and Education.

This is the headquarter of the Communist Party’s propagandists where propaganda are produced and instructions on the work of all media agencies are made. Any politically sensitive issue raised by the media can be censored by this Department to stop it from criticizing government policies. On the other hand, there are many newspapers that survive on state budget and only focus on gossip stories. But, when they receive an order from the propaganda Department, they will always be more than ready to publish articles defaming political dissidents shaping public opinions and paving the way for police arrests. I was arbitrarily arrested many times when I went to “hot zones” of demonstrations social gatherings, and trials of dissidents. What the public security forces aim at is to bar those who can take picture, shoot camera and post the images to web. Usually they kept me for half a day for interrogation ans search of my camera, cell phone and laptop to find evidence so that they can put me in jail. However, I kept all the “sensitive” things in my mind only so they could not find any evidence. I myself am familiar now with such arbitrary detentions.

I have many friends who use aliases on the Internet. Actually it is still very dangerous. The Vietnamese public security force with their generous budget and a powerful corporation of IT technicians can trace any blogger immediately. There are bloggers whom the police konw, but do not arrest because they are not influential enough. Also the police don’t arrest bloggers who stay outside of Vietnam or who have a network of powerful friends or who are supported by international media. Many bloggers such as Pham Viet Dao and Truong Duy Nhat though very famous, were still arrested because they did not participate in real-life campaigns and they are not supported by surrounding audience. In the case of Ðinh Nhat Uy has was arrested because he was alone in Long An and when he suffered from police harassment there was hardly anyone around to support him. There were many other cases in which even when the activists were arrested and put to trial the blogging community knew nothing about him/her or what he/she had done. For this reason, I think bloggers should use their real name to gain the support from the online public. But, more importantly, bloggers must engage themselves in real-life activities, because when something bad happens to them, their supporters will play a major role in helping them. What their supporters think and do are what the police are most scared of. As a photographer who specializes in reporting on civil society activities, I wish there would be no hand covering my camera.

I wish I could be free to report what is going on in the society. I wish I would no more have to flee from my home before each demonstration. I wish I would no more be interrogated or arbitrarily arrested just because I told the truth to people. Only freedom of expression, freedom of the press, freedom of the media, can drive Vietnam out of poverty and ping happiness to the people.

More than one year ago I was closely watched and illegally arrested many times because of the photos I took. At that time, there were very few people involved in taking photos and reporting on demonstrations and land evictions, so the police could easily find out and suppress people like me. Now, those people have increased in number and the police cannot arrest all of them. The Vietnamese people soon realized the power of social media when they use social media as a tool to protect themselves from injustice. Every day, news, images and video footages go viral on social media networks including Facebook, Youtube, blogs, etc… to report cases of social injustice. Social media have changed the servile mind of the Vietnamese people. There are more and more civil groups established on social media networks.

The government keeps crazily attacking bloggers by interrogations, harassment, and prisons but it stays helpless before social media. What have been happening in Vietnam in the three recent years is equal to the sum of thirty years’ achievements. It is certain that we, the Vietnamese people, will win.

As for me, social media are an open communication channel with which all actors are equal and they have the rights to introduce their information products to the world. It’s an important means to protect the interest of the disadvantaged minorities to fight back the huge propaganda machine of the dictatorial regime and to connect people all over the world in their effort to lead a better life with human rights being the core values of development. Thank you and good bye!


Opinion of Nguyen Lan Thang, posted on Youtube, Sept 20/2013. Translated by Ðoan Trang.

Click here for the videoclip


Cái Đình - 2013