2015 Civil Rights Defender Of The Year – Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh
Occupation: Blogging, Coordinator of the Vietnamese Bloggers Network
Pen Name: Mẹ Nấm (Mother Mushroom)
Hometown: Nha Trang City, Vietnam
Awards: Won the 2010 Hellman/Hammett Award from Human Rights Watch.
Children: Daughter 8, Son 2
Well known for her use of social media to speak out about social injustice and human rights violations, Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh has been blogging under the pen name Me Nam since 2006. Her writing has been critical of the Vietnamese government’s corruption, human rights abuses and foreign policy toward China, including the two nations’ territorial disputes. Because of her activism for free expression and other universal human rights, she has been arrested, detained, interrogated, harassed and beaten up by security police on several occasions, including in 2009 when she was taken away at midnight from her home with her two-year-old daughter left behind alone, and detained for ten days.
She was charged under the controversial Article 258 of the Penal Code for ‘’abusing democratic freedoms”. She lost her job due to security police’s interference and her passport has been confiscated. In spite of these continuing hardships, as a coordinator of the Network of Vietnamese Bloggers she continues to organise ‘’human rights coffee sessions’’, social meetings with like-minded bloggers and activists to discuss relevant UN human rights conventions, and to meet with diplomats to raise concerns about fellow bloggers in distress and to advocate for the release of prisoners of conscience.
Despite great personal risk, she is always devoted to speak up for those who can’t. She continues to be an activist that the authorities target and remains a force to be reckoned with.
Shawn Crispin of the Committee to Protect Journalists said that winning this award would give Quynh the international recognition she so richly deserves as one of Vietnam’s most persistent and fearless advocates for freedom of expression and human rights: “Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh has long stood at the perilous forefront of Vietnam’s persecuted independent blogger community, bravely putting her personal security at risk for the cause of press freedom. Her uncompromising reporting and commentaries have made her a role model for a growing number of bloggers who dare to challenge state censorship by independently reporting and interpreting the news’’. Crispin noted that the award would put the Vietnamese government on notice that the world is closely watching its treatment of Quynh and her colleagues.
Congratulations, Quynh! How does it feel to win this award?
I’m so surprised and grateful! Thank you, Civil Rights Defenders for this award. This is a great encouragement not only for me but also for all of Vietnamese bloggers and human rights defenders whom I would like to share this award for our joined efforts. I’m honoured to receive this award on behalf of all the Network of Vietnamese Bloggers (NVB) members because without them my contribution to the improvement of human rights in Vietnam will not be possible.
What led you to start blogging?
At the beginning, in 2006 I started writing blogs in the same way as a diary to share my thoughts with my baby daughter. However, one day I went to the hospital and saw a lot of poor people outside in the hot sun desperately waiting for treatment. Many of them were ignored because they were poor and did not have money to bribe hospital officials . I had to think why people like them, like me, who works and pays taxes for medical care, utilities, services… do not not get what we rightly deserve: fair and adequate medical care from the government.
So this incident of injustice woke me up. I started to re-evaluate all aspects in my life that was drilled into my head over so many years by the party’s education and media system. I realised that the Vietnamese people do not have any human rights. Whatever rights we thought we had was only on the pages of the constitution and was taken from us by laws and decrees beneath it.
After the arrest (in 2009) and a short stay in jail without trial, to protect my family I decided to stop blogging. But I soon found out that I could not turn away, my conscience woke me up during the night for what I witnessed during the day. Every time I looked at my daughter, I kept wondering if she would grow up having a normal life? The answer was definitely a resounding “no”. So, I started to write again and I was lucky that CNN published my story on air. After that, I realized that I have a voice and my voice can be heard.
I did not just go back to blogging but more than that, I decided to become a human rights defender. I must live a meaningful life as an honourable human being (…). I must fight and live the life that I dreamt for my daughter – a life that billion people on this earth at the moment are living in a very “normal” way.
What effect has all of this had on you?
I constantly live in fear and constantly remind myself I must hide my fear and be courageous. I fear of being unable to hug my daughter in bed or to read a story for my son before he falls asleep. But I also become more courageous because of them. My present must be for their future.
You co-founded the Network of Vietnamese Bloggers in 2013. What is happening now?
The NVB paved the way for a big new step in human rights activism in Vietnam. For the first time we conducted a campaign (fighting to pressure the government to abolish Article 258 – used to arrest bloggers and activists) so through this campaign, Vietnamese activists could work with the international community to protect and promote human rights in Vietnam. Initiating the collaboration and building a long working relationship between Vietnamese activists and international organisations indeed was the true purpose
In Vietnam, the government still uses Article 258 to arrest bloggers and activists. More than that, this Article serves as a hangman over all bloggers’ heads and creates fear: anyone can be arrested and sentenced to jail. I was one of the people who was temporarily arrested and charged by the security police with the Article 258 – for “abusing my freedom of expression”. Up until now, no one can show me what I did to harm the government or the society by saying what I thought.
After the 258 campaign, some NVB members and many other activists were banned from traveling. They kept our passports, took away our travel right and put all of us on black list. Tactically, they want to cut off our connection with the international community – which is our main strategy.
The members of the Network of Vietnamese Bloggers show other people that we all can step out of our fear. We tell them: Don’t be afraid. We do this step by step and call for solidarity. If the Vietnamese people managed to step out from their fear and joined together, the government will be forced to listen. They would have to answer us.
In 2015, we are now in the early stages of organising a human rights campaign and in this campaign we will try to create collaboration between activists inside Vietnam and abroad.
What motivates you to keep blogging despite threats, being arrested, having your passport taken?
Many reasons but it comes down to a very personal motivation: my children’s future. I do not want my children to struggle and do what I’m doing now. Or worse, I do not want them to close their eyes, running away from the reality of modern slavery and blindly or fooling themselves thinking that they are living a “normal life”.
How would you describe the situation in terms of the press in Vietnam, which is government run? How do people get information?
Vietnam has a lot of newspapers and magazines but always under the control of the government. They have a weekly meeting on Tuesdays and the editors tell the papers which news can be published and which don’t. The majority of Vietnamese people get “filtered” information from this huge system.
But social media has become an alternative. People start to read blogs, exchange information and verify information against the news published by state controlled media. Social media is also a place where the government journalists and the bloggers connect in order to get news to the reader.
What can we do to support you and your colleagues who are working for human rights in Vietnam?
First of all, this award definitely helps! It’s not just a personal recognition but actually acts as a protection for me and for the network members. More international recognition means less danger. Secondly, help us to remove the government’s “tools” to continue abusing human rights. Those “tools” include many laws and decrees such as 258 that outrightly violate all the international conventions on human rights. As a duty we have to fight for the freedom of the prisoners of conscience. However, we must concentrate more to prevent more people becoming prisoners of conscience because of their work in defending human rights.