HANOI, Vietnam — Vietnam's government has vowed to crack down on three dissident blogs, a move that appeared to backfire Thursday as record numbers of people visited the sites and the bloggers pledged to keep up their struggle for freedom of expression.
Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung's order for police to arrest those responsible for the websites reflects growing unease within the Communist Party over the emergence of blogs and social media accounts that publish dissenting views, independent reporting and whistleblowing. The party doesn't allow free media, and it fears criticism or discussion of its failings on the Internet could lead to social instability and – ultimately – loss of its power.
"Nobody can shut our mouth or stop our freedom of expression," said a member of the team that administers one of the targeted blogs, Danlambao. "This is our mission. We will continue at any cost." The blogger chatted over the Internet with The Associated Press on the condition that his name and exact location not be published because of the risk of arrest.
Danlambao, or "Citizens' Journalism," is one of the most prominent of several dissident blogs that have started in the last two years.
It has attracted thousands of viewers in recent weeks because of its reporting on suspected power struggles among the ruling elite that it says may have been behind the arrest of a banking tycoon last month. It has speculated that the detention of Nguyen Duc Kien, said to be close to the prime minister's daughter, was the result of tensions between the premier and the president.
Late Wednesday, the government said Danlambao and two others sites had been "publishing distorted and fabricated articles" against the leadership. It said that Vietnamese state employees were forbidden from visiting the sites.
It is not illegal for Vietnamese to visit the targeted sites, and the government's firewall blocking many sensitive websites is fairly easy to get around.
"This is a wicked plot of the hostile forces," a government statement said, adding that the prime minister had ordered police to arrest those associated with the sites.
The statement led to a surge in visitors to the sites as curious Vietnamese wanted to see what they had been publishing, according to the blogs.
The Danlambao blog said it was on course to have more than 500,000 page views Thursday, more than double its normal amount, thanks to what it called the unintended public relations coup handed to it by the government.
One of the other targeted sites, Quanlambao, or the "Officials' Journalism" blog, said Dung's threat was meant to lay the legal groundwork for a campaign of arrests against bloggers.
The blogger contacted by AP said Dung mentioned their site by name to try to scare contributors from contacting it.
"They (the government) are losing control of the independent blogs," the blogger said. "Not just our one."
The blogger said Danlambao's sources of information were other bloggers, journalists who work for state-run media, ordinary citizens and Communist Party members seeking to damage other factions within the party. Some of the material comes from reading between the lines of reports in the state-run media, the blogger said.
"They provide us the bullets and we shoot – because they can't," the blogger said.
International watchdog Reporters Without Borders says at least five journalists and 19 bloggers are now being held on various charges in Vietnam, part of a gathering government effort to stifle criticism over the last two years even as the country presses ahead with opening its economy to foreign investment. The government labels democracy and free speech activists as terrorists.
Journalists working for foreign news organization are allowed to live in the country but must ask permission to report outside the capital. That is routinely denied if the subject of the story is seen as sensitive or damaging to Vietnam.