Press Freedom in Vietnam: Powerless Without the Net

Bui Thanh Hieu, 44 is one of the best known bloggers in Vietnam. On Day 2 of the MEDIA CONVENTION Berlin, in his talk on "#freeLy: Blogging, and the restriction of freedoms of religion and information in Vietnam" he spoke about the persecution of dissent in his country. Writing under the name of Nguoi Buon Gio ("The Wind Trader"), he has been publishing political and social commentary since 2005, which he has been arrested for numerous times. Today he lives in Berlin, which is where the DJS journalism students met him for an interview.

You publish your blog in exile, in Berlin. What's it about?
I write about political events in Vietnam, including corruption and tyranny, but also police violence or environmental scandals. My last few articles, for instance, were concerned with the mass deaths of fish populations off the coast of Ha Tinh and Hue provinces. I suspect that the cause is chemical waste from the local steelworks, Formosa. But the government is doing nothing to shed light onto the matter.

How do you discover these kinds of stories?
When I used to hear of riots on the Internet, I would go there to get a picture of it myself. When I became better known online, people started approaching me. They would call, when they had news of arrests being made, and would ask me to report.

How did you verify that they were telling the truth?
Why lie? I myself filmed the police, stamping on journalists. The policemen used pepper spray and batons against them. I saw it with my own eyes. Many times, I arrived even before the police did, so that I could witness the entire procedure.

Do you have a professional journalistic background?
No, I have a general degree and then got by as a simple worker. I realised there were a lot of people who had a lot to say, but didn't have the means. Journalists were not standing up for them either, since the press in Vietnam reports back to the regime. So that left me.

How many people read your reports?
I have my blog, and apart from that, I use Facebook. More than 50,000 people are following my page there. But the click rates suggest I have more regular readers than that. Some simply don't dare to "like" my page publicly, as they are concerned it might make them look suspicious. The regime hates the direct manner in which we bloggers address many issues. But in any case, we still have the Internet. Without it, we would be powerless.

Is it more difficult to work from Germany?
No, on the contrary. I was generously provided with a writer's grant from the PEN Foundation. My wife and my ten-year-old son are living here with me. Now I can concentrate on my writing. I have already finished three novels, two of which have been translated into English.

How come you are now in Berlin, of all places?
In 2010, I was invited to Germany to read one of my essays. Upon returning to Vietnam, I was arrested several times, detained for ten to fifteen days each time. It was then I received the PEN Foundation's Writers-in-exile scholarship.

Is your family in Vietnam made to suffer for your work?
My family constantly receives visits from the police. Usually they come to insult them, tell them that they should have educated and taught me better. They blame my family for me supposedly becoming a reactionary who wants to bring down the government.

You could stop blogging and save your family some trouble.
I believe this is work that needs to be done. If not in this life, then in the next. And I imagine the problems would be even greater if I wasn't a blogger. The greatest thing is that my family supports me in what I do. My mother was 83 years old when the police came to arrest me. She told the policemen: "My son is not to blame. I am proud of what he's done."

More on Bui Thanh Hieu's activities on his Facebook page.