Vietnamese police have arrested one of the country's best known bloggers for posting criticism of the communist government, intensifying a crackdown against Internet-fuelled dissent in the one-party, authoritarian state.
The arrest of Pham Viet Dao, 61, indicates the level of concern in the Communist Party over the threat posed by Internet activism. Up until a few years the party had a monopoly on information in the country. Now, scores of blogs and Facebook accounts report gleefully on its failings and internal feuding, reaching millions of people and helping spread anger at its long rule.
So far this year, 46 bloggers or democracy activists have been convicted and imprisoned, more than the number of people locked up for violating national security laws in the whole of 2012. Foreign governments, led by the United States, have criticized the crackdown and called for the activists' release but have little leverage to force Hanoi to change tack.
Dao was arrested from his home in Hanoi on Thursday for the offense of "abusing democratic freedoms," the Ministry of Public Security said on its website. That violation of Article 258 of the Penal Code carries up to seven years in prison.
Dao, a former government official and member of the Vietnam Writers Association, ran a website where he had written posts critical of Vietnamese leaders. The site was not available Friday, apparently blocked by the government.
In a speech Dao gave to a seminar on the media last year, Dao said social media in Vietnam was "making up for the shortcomings and handicapped official media in the country," which only portrayed a "smooth and perfect society in an artificial way."
"Fortunately, with the boom of Internet, many individuals and bloggers have become journalists," he said, according to a text of his speech posted on another dissident blog Friday.
The government is under pressure because of its mishandling of the stuttering economy, once one of Asia's brightest. Well-connected state-owned enterprises have been allowed to run up massive debts over the last few years, while producing little of value, dragging down the economy.
Nguyen Quang A, an outspoken economist, said the arrest of Dao was attempt by the government to get everyone to "shut up your mouth" and a reflection of its weakness.
"Who will be next?" he asked. "When somebody is weak and wants to appear to be strong, he does things like this."
In televised testimony on Thursday to the lawmaking National Assembly, a government minister said the Internet has brought huge benefits to Vietnam since it was introduced there in 1997, but he warned of the negative impact of online dissent.
"Recently, opportunist elements in the country and the overseas hostile forces have abused the Internet to spread information that sabotaged the country, distorted the policy of our Party and state," Minister of Information and Communications Nguyen Bac Son said.
Vietnam has 31 million Internet users, some 73 percent of them younger than 35. Vietnam's population is 90 million.
Unlike China, the government is unable to enforce a firewall or efficiently block access to websites. Vietnam's problems are now compounded because Internet business and commerce are important for future economic growth, yet cracking down on Internet freedom would also cut into that prospect.
American Internet firms like Google and Facebook want to do more business in the country, but are wary of the regulatory environment. Dao's blog appeared to be hosted by blogger, Google's blogging platform, highlighting the problems.
Another well-known blogger was arrested last month for the same charges as Dao. He has yet to face trial. Other bloggers have been imprisoned for up to 12 years. The government says no one has been jailed for peacefully expressing their views, only those who break the law.