A Vietnamese blogger languishing in jail after challenging her one-party Communist government leaders on social justice issues was honored in the U.S. Friday as an “International Woman of Courage” in a move highlighting Hanoi’s crackdown on online dissent.
Ta Phong Tan, a Catholic ex-policewoman who is serving a 10-year jail sentence for conducting "anti-state propaganda" in her online writings, is one of ten “extraordinary women” from around the world recognized by the State Department for their work advocating for women’s empowerment.
Tan had posted essays and exposes on her “Truth and Justice” blog and was among the first bloggers to write and comment on political news events long considered off-limits by the Vietnamese authorities until she was detained in 2011.
She was hailed as a “ground-breaking blogger” and presented with the award in absentia in a ceremony in Washington marking International Women’s Day on Friday.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Tan had helped inspire “an awakening of citizen journalists and bloggers" challenging government views in Vietnam and was given the award for her "dedication to continually demanding a better government for the Vietnamese people."
He said she had received her jail sentence in a "rigged verdict" and at the trial had called out against injustice while being led away from the courtroom.
Chinese-Tibetan poet and writer Tsering Woeser, who blogs about rights issues facing Tibetans and is currently under house arrest in Beijing, was also among those selected for the award and received hers in absentia.
Tan, who is in her forties, was an officer in Vietnam’s security forces and a member of the Vietnamese Communist Party before she was expelled from both over her online writings.
Conducting 'propaganda against the state'
Tan was sentenced to jail last year alongside two fellow members of the “Free Journalists Club” citizen reporting website, dissidents Nguyen Van Hai (whose pen name is Dieu Cay) and Phanh Thanh Hai.
Shortly before the trial, Tan’s mother set herself on fire and died in protest against her daughter’s imprisonment.
Tan and the other two were sentenced under Article 88 of Vietnam’s Criminal Code, a provision rights groups say is vaguely defined and used by Hanoi to silence dissent.
Vietnam is home to a vibrant blogging community, including plenty of women, but netizens who speak critically of the government face harsh controls.
Other women citizen journalists in Vietnam who have suffered punishment for their blogging include Lo Thanh Thao, who was jailed under Article 88 after being arrested while taking photos of a protest over a land dispute, and Nguyen Hoang Vi, who has said police sexually assaulted her after she was taken into custody on suspicion of hiding "illegal exhibits" on her body.
International rights groups have accused the Vietnamese government of mounting a sophisticated and sustained attack on online dissent by detaining and intimidating anti-government bloggers.
Huynh Ngoc Chenh
On Thursday, Paris-based press freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders named Ho Chi Minh City-based blogger Huynh Ngoc Chenh its international “Netizen of the Year.”
Chenh, a retired senior editor at the Thanh Nien newspaper whose blog has faced heavy government pressure, was selected for the award by web users among Reporters Without Borders’ nominees as a netizen who defends freedom of expression.
The group said Chenh is one of Vietnam’s most influential bloggers, with tens of thousands of Vietnamese using anti-censorship software to circumvent blocks on his site.
Chenh said the award is a source of inspiration for himself and for “all bloggers and independent journalists in Vietnam, and those who face the restrictions about the right of freedom of expression.”
“It demonstrates the world community’s support and will make us more audacious in raising our concerns and continuing our struggle for freedom of information. It will help people from being scared away from speaking out.”
Chen blogs about democracy, human rights, and the territorial disputes between Vietnam and China, and has been threatened numerous times by the authorities for his articles.
Reporters Without Borders lists one-party Vietnam as an “Enemy of the Internet” and the third-largest prison in the world for netizens.
The group’s Secretary General Christophe Deloire said that bloggers like Chenh “fill the void left by the state-run media” in a country “marked by draconian censorship and growing surveillance of dissidents.”
Reporters Without Borders will present the award to Chenh in Paris on March 12, the World Day against Cyber Censorship.