IMPUNITY CASE PROFILE
[Original title: Arbitrary cancellation of a radio show in Laos]
Ounkeo Souksavanh, 40, hosted a popular and the first ever call-in radio news program, Wao Kao or “News Talk”, which was abruptly canceled by Lao state authorities in January this year. Wao Kao was the only live-broadcast program that enabled the public to phone in comments on current news or voice their problems. It quickly became a vibrant platform for people to exercise and exchange their opinions, including those critical of the state, and a crucial channel to convey people’s grievances to the government.
Wao Kao was ordered off the air on 27 January 2012 without prior warning or written official order. Lao National Radio deputy director said the order came from the Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism.
Until now, there is no official explanation about the reasons for the cancellation of the program. Ounkeo suspects that his program was stopped most likely because of the growing number of dissenting voices of the people over social injustices arising from state management of national resource and land concessions.
The authorities said that the program was merely suspended for further improvement. According to Ounkeo, authorities have approached him to try to him back to host the program—on condition that the format and names have to be altered. He turned them down.
“My program was shut down without mention of any mistake I did. I cannot simply ignore what happened and go back on air without knowing my mistake”, he said in an interview Australian Broadcasting Corporation on 16 August.
Pioneer of a live-call news radio program
Ounkeo began his career as a journalist in 2000, when he joined Vientiane Times, the country’s first English-language daily. Most of his news reports and articles were devoted to development and cultural issues, which are considered less sensitive.
Between 2005 and 2007, he became a freelance journalist for the Inter Press Services (IPS), a global news service that features stories about developments and human rights.
Ounkeo launched Wao Kao on the Lao National Radio on 15 November 2007. It was a time, when the government had begun to allow privately-produced radio content to fill the growing public demand for news and information, which the lack of skilled personnel from the tightly controlled state broadcast media industry was not able to meet.
“I wanted to introduce some fresh ideas and more life into Laos news programming, which was usually dull and monotonous,” Ounkeo said in launching the program.
Wao Kao was considered as an achievement in broadening access to information and stimulating citizen feedback and exchange on a wide range of social, economic and environmental issues impacting the country and everyday life.
The call-in program ran between 10 and 11pm from Monday to Friday, at FM 103.7 MHZ of the Lao National Radio (LNR). The FM broadcast reaches listeners in the Vientiane city proper and Vientiane province, while those in nearby provinces can listen by satellite broadcast.
Listeners would phone in to air their views on news reports read by Ounkeo at the start of the program. Many callers were encouraged by the faceless anonymity provided by radio to air their views on topics normally considered taboo in Laotian media, including social justice, corruption and land grabbing issues, often implicating government officials.
On several occasions, the program even went to the field to interview victims in such disputes. In some other cases, it managed to alert concerned authorities to rescue child workers or villagers who were unjustifiably detained without trial or warrant.
Ounkeo used his microphone to address culture of impunity that was rarely heard of in Lao society. Ironically his efforts made him a victim of impunity committed by the state authorities.
No legal basis
On 27 January 2011, the LNR deputy director of told Ounkeo of a cancellation order from the Ministry. He was never told of the reasons for the cancellation nor has received any written official order.
Ounkeo suspects that the shutdown might have been triggered by his live interview with a delegation of farmers from the Boloven plateau region who complained about the expansion of a Vietnamese coffee plantation with the alleged connivance of the district governor. This particular episode apparently led many Laotians to complain to the National Assembly about similar land grabbing issues.
Ounkeo found out later that the order was issued by Information Minister Borsaengkham Vongdara. On 23 April, he wrote a letter to the minister appealing for the reinstatement of his program. His defense was that his program was in line with the journalistic professionalism and the Laos press law, and served the public interest. He received no reply.
But in response to a petition signed by members of the Lao Links blogging community demanding for explanations on the closure of the program, LNR said Ounkeo’s program was biased and may cause social division for allowing opposing views to be contested on air.
LNR officials also alleged that Ounkeo was delayed in paying his airtime fee. He argues however that this had never been an issue during the four years of his program, since he had been allowed to wait for advertising payments, which are the source of money for airtime fees. He lost 70 million kip (about USD 8,700) worth of advertising income after sponsors pulled out because of the program’s shutdown.
In defiance to the shutdown, Ounkeo produced CDs featuring program episodes discussing land problems in Laos, and distributed it to his listeners and those interested in the issues.
The talk-back program’s shutdown caused an unprecedented reaction both among the listeners and the online community, and drew international media attention. It revived attention to the climate of censorship and the lack of freedom of expression in Laos.
“Who [demanded the closure] is not the issue here, but [that] there are no legal reasons at all. There is no warning about the mistakes. This case reflects that the Lao government limits on people’s freedom expression [and is] violating the national constitution. It expresses [sic] that the power belongs to only the government. In fact the constitution says power belong to people, by people and for people [sic]”, wrote an anonymous commenter in response to an Asia Times Online story about Ounkeo.
Members of Lao Links, a Lao language online bulletin board, expressed dismay and regret that “society won’t be able to listen to this program anymore because it is as same as a big microphone to speak out about social problems”, one online contributor wrote.
Nevertheless, no local media professional and practitioner in Laos dared discuss the issue or challenge the order.
Diminished public space
The shutdown of the program is a serious infringement on media freedom and freedom of expression in Laos. As the only live call-in radio talk show over national radio, its closure has considerably diminished the already limited space for people to express and exchange opinions on issues that matter to them.
This high-profile case could only further damage the government’s poor international credibility in terms of media freedom and freedom of expression, as seen from concerns raised during the Lao PDR’s Universal Periodic Review session in 2011.
The cancellation of Wao Kao can serve as an important test of constitutional guarantees on freedom of expression, the 2008 Press Law, and state obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which the country ratified in 2009.
Some members of the international donor community in Vientiane ,including the European Union and United Nations Development Program have quietly raised the issue with the Laotian government, but the latter so far remains silent.
Also, SEAPA sent a letter on 11 May 2012 to Minister Bosaenkham Vongdara expressing concern over the cancellation of program and calling upon the minister to reverse the order. The response was again silence.