Page last updated at 13:48 GMT, Monday, 22 June 2009 14:48 UK

Blogging in Cuba and Vietnam

In a special edition, World Service programme Digital Planet looked at the role of blogging, censorship and citizen journalism. Here Americo Martins, Americas editor, and Giang Nguyen, head of the BBC's Vietnamese service, talk about the effect it can have in two very different nations.

Americo Martins, Americas editor, World service
Cubans looking at computers, AP
Poverty stops many Cubans getting a computer and going online

Cuban bloggers are having a strong political impact in the communist country, despite the severely restricted access to the internet.

Only about 200,000 Cubans, or about 2% of the population, have access to the web -most of them employees of the government, academics and researchers. Others try to use hotels to access the internet but have to pay about US$ 5 a day, a very high price for Cuban standards.

The government also uses censorship and intimidation to control the web content but officials are facing a serious challenge from the small number of bloggers who stand up and write about the harsh realities of life in the island.

The most well know of those bloggers is Yoani Sanchez, the main person behind Generación Y - a blog written by friends that have names that start with the letter Y.

Yoani is much well known abroad than in Cuba.

She has received the prestigious Spanish award Ortega and Gasset for her blog and was considered one of the 100 most influential people by Time magazine in 2008.

But in Cuba she is facing more and mores restrictions. She cannot, for example, update her on blog from Havana. She has to find ways to e-mail her texts to friends abroad -they then translate the articles into several languages and publish the blog for her.

The Cuban government says it has all the right to restrict access to sites that are subversive. They also claim that some bloggers, including Yoani, receive money from abroad and are "mercenaries" serving foreign governments.

But what really concerns the government is that most blogs, including Generación Y, are not only political. They have more impact when they just report about the daily difficulties and lack of choice in the country.

Giang Nguyen, Head of the BBC's Vietnamese service

In December 2008, Vietnam's Ministry of Information and Communications published a new set of rules to impose restrictions on internet blogs, banning bloggers from raising subjects the government deems inappropriate.

However, this move came a bit late, given the country already had about 20 million Vietnamese using the internet - a quarter of the population.

Vietnamese cyber cafe, AFP
Many Vietnamese go online via cybercafes

Although not all among two million Vietnamese bloggers are interested in politics, the infamous "Culture and Media Police" or A25 Department keeps a watching eye on the local bloggers to make sure they follow the new rules.

They also announced that internet service providers will be held accountable for the content of blogs they host.

However, the restrictions cannot prevent Vietnam's burgeoning blogging community from becoming an important source of news for many people in the country, where electronic media is under tight control.

First of all, it is a bit too late for the government to follow millions of blog entries and online conversations within the Vietnamese web community but also with those of the hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese living in the USA, Europe and Australia.

The government has overlooked the growth of the internet and by the time it came to realise that Vietnamese netizens don't need the Party's newspapers to get the news they want, it was rather too late.

And as the Vietnamese now can freely travel abroad for business, studies, tourism and family visits, it is not easy to control their thinking anymore.

Secondly, the arrests and imprisonment of a number of well-known bloggers such as Dieu-Cay in 2007 or cyberdissident Pham Hong Son some years early have drawn criticism from the world's human rights organisations and Western countries who are also the most important donors of Vietnam's economic reforms.

And despite the fact that the rules ban any web posts that undermine national security, incite violence or disclose state secrets, some bloggers who are also well-connected journalists in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City seem to know how to bypass the censorship.

They have never spoken out publicly against the government but only constructively criticise the system's shortcomings, presumably in the name of the public.

This doesn't mean the media police in Vietnam have given up on blogging business and web-control activities but they have to be aware that their actions too, like the arrest of pro-democratic lawyer Le Cong Dinh this month in Ho Chi Minh City, can quickly become the top news on the net.

The speed of independent news is something they still cannot stop.

Digital Planet is broadcast on BBC World Service on Tuesday at 1232 GMT and repeated at 1632 GMT, 2032 GMT and on Wednesday at 0032 GMT.

You can listen online or download the podcast .



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