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By Julia Scheeres  |   04:00 PM Apr. 18, 2002 PT

A free speech advocacy group is calling for the release of three Vietnamese dissidents who were recently arrested after they criticized the communist regime on the Internet.

“These are just more examples of how the Vietnamese authorities are censuring freedom of expression,” said Vincent Brossell, who heads the Asia-Pacific desk of Reporters Without Borders.

The Paris-based group said the latest detainee, Son Hong Pham, is a doctor and sales rep for a pharmaceutical company. Pham was arrested after he translated an article titled “What is Democracy?” and posted it online late last month. The document had originally appeared on the American Embassy’s website in Hanoi.

Pham had previously posted numerous pro-Democracy articles on the dissident forums Danchu.net and Ykien.net and even sent one, “Promising Signals for Democracy in Vietnam,” to the secretary-general of the Vietnamese Communist Party, General Nong Duc Manh.

After he published the embassy piece in Vietnamese, the local police interrogated him and confiscated his computer, Brossell said. The next day, he published an online letter protesting the seizure and was sent to prison.

Reporters Without Borders is calling for the immediate release of Pham and two other Web dissidents, Le Chi Quang and Tran Khue, who were detained for similar activities earlier this year.

In February, computer teacher Le Chi Quang was arrested at a Hanoi Internet café after he published an online article titled “Beware the Northern Empire,” which criticized the Vietnamese government for ceding a large chunk of its territory to China. He was charged with sending “dangerous information overseas” and his computer seized.

In March, literature professor Tran Khue was arrested after he published an open letter to Chinese president Jiang Zemin on the Internet that also criticized the Sino-Vietnamese agreement. (Vietnamese dissidents have launched an online petition urging the international community to reject the agreement.)

The arrests were also protested by the Committee to Protect Journalists. Calls to the Vietnamese Embassy in Washington requesting comment on the arrests were not answered.

Although the dissidents don’t fit the conventional definition of reporters, they are the closest thing to independent journalists in Vietnam. The government owns the media and controls the nation’s six ISPs, which block access to western media and other information deemed “subversive.” Last year, Hanoi passed regulation which imposes fines of up to $1,330 for illegal Internet activity, including distributing prohibited information and pornographic material.

Although Internet penetration is low in Vietnam — with only an estimated 150,000 subscribers out of a population of 78 million –- the government nevertheless views the medium as a threat, said Nguyen Than Psam, the chairman of the San Diego, California Vietnam Human Rights Network.

“You can criticize the government in the street or in their face, but not online,” said Than Psam. “They don’t want you to use mass communication and influence a lot of people because then they say it’s a threat to national security.”



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