[Laos] From watchdog to mouthpiece?

Laos remains stagnant at the low bottom of any international democracy and media indices highlighting it as one of countries that have the most restricted rights.

On paper — explicitly stated in their Constitution — civil liberties as free expression, press freedom, and right to public assembly are protected. In practice however, citizens who exercise these rights can be held criminally liable based on Article 65 of the Penal Code for propagating ideas and acts against the Party or undermining state authority.

The media law, adopted in 2008, guarantees media rights and access to public records. But it has been viewed to favor control over the protection of the media. As of this writing, the law has not been fully implemented pending the formation of guidelines.

The intrusive supervision of media activities and content through various state mechanisms plus the harsh punitive laws and regulations relating to the political stability of the People’s Revolutionary Party and state security makes it impossible for the country’s expanding media to serve the public interest. Pinpathana Phanthamalee, director of the Department of Mass Media, reaffirmed the tag “a sharp propaganda tool of the Party” at the 65th anniversary of the Lao press on 13 August 2015.

The country’s dependence on resources and expertise from China and Vietnam to address its slow-growing media sector and information communication technology infrastructure development does not help build the media’s autonomy from the state.

Lacking autonomy

In retrospect, the state often showcases its anti-corruption efforts in the news but leaving high-level individual corruption cases untouched. For example, the mainstream media reported extensively the embezzlement of the state budget worth USD 30 million and the loss of state revenue worth USD 250 million from the exception of import duties of oil and vehicle for foreign companies and under-targeted collection of export duties of logs involving 95 state officials.

Another big news was the anti-corruption report by the National Inspector General Office headed by Vienthong Siphandone, daughter of former President and the Party’s Chairman Gen Khamtay Siphandone, which found 116 state agencies failed to submit income worth USD 93 million dollars mostly generated from duties and state assets to the central budget bureau between 2012 and 2014.

The lack of independent media coverage and the subdued voice of the civil society effectively deprived citizens of the quality and pluralistic information critical to their living.

Discussions on highly sensitive issues and taboo subjects like climate change, anti-state armed ethnic movement, growing conflict between state and local communities over land concessions, and environment problems caused by foreign investors were limited or missing in the mainstream media.

A chilling weather condition in Northern Laos in early 2016, which left elderly people seriously affected and caused death to many animals, barely made it to the news. Authorities did not take steps to inform the affected population in advance, the consequence of which was only revealed through Facebook.

The armed ethnic Hmong resistant groups are active in the areas surrounding Vientiane and Xayaburi provinces. The embassy of the United States (US) of America has issued a travel ban for its officials on Route No. 13 between Kasi, Vientiane province and Phou Khoun, Luang Prabang province since March 2016. But, these issues were left unknown.

The state media failed to report several gun ambushes, which occurred three times in the first quarter of 2016, involving Chinese businessmen. The media have not investigated illegal logging and export incidents in Southern Laos and other parts of the country. There were also no reports on the contamination of toxins in a banana plantation in Northern. These mostly concern foreign companies doing business in Laos.

However, these “bad” news and information often slipped out on social media and reported by the international media like Radio Free Asia, BBC, ABC, and some alternative media outlets. Lao netizens have managed to access taboo information banned in the state and mainstream media, helped by the country’s Internet boom over the past five years.

Some more in-depth reports on economic issues and state development projects are allowed in select newspapers such as Lao Pattana (Lao development) and Vientiane Times to showcase the state performance in economic and social programs as well as to provide information to the diplomatic community, foreign investors, and tourists.

Laos allows foreign press to operate in the country as part of its commitment to have good international relations. The regulation on the media sector is liberalized in return for foreign trade and financial access. But many restrictions and control imposed on media activities and content and access to information does not make it viable for foreign media outlets to operate in Laos. The foreign media in the country remain limited and dominated by groups from Laos’ communist counterparts China and Vietnam, which provide resources and technical support. This arrangement is made to share information rather than run real media businesses.

Laos was supposed to allow foreign media to cover the Party Congress in January 2016 and the elections of the National Legislative Assembly in March 2016 but did not push through citing the lack of personnel to handle foreign media activities.

Controlled media, managed information

The Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism (MICT), which is the main Party mechanism for communication, reported the media’s development from 2011 to 2015 during the Party’s Congress on 18-22 January 2016. The report mentioned the progress of the Lao media in terms of quantity and quality.

There are 127 journals and newspapers including 11 state-owned dailies. The Khaosan Pathet Lao (KPL) is the country’s main provider of official news updates daily. KPL’s information is available in Lao, French, and English and for publication by all newspapers.

The expansion of the radio network was a little short of target. Radio transmits to 90 percent of the country. The number of radio stations increased from 57 in 2014 to 64 in 2015 (nine located in Vientiane including Lao National Radio, Armed Force Radio, Defense of Order Radio, Chian Radio International, France Radio International, and Australian Radio Australia).

Television reaches 80 percent of the country. There are 37 TV stations including nine national channels (Channels 1 to 3, Laos Star, TV Defense of Order, MV Lao, Vietnam TV, CCTV 4, and CCTV9).

The ministry said works are in progress to set up additional 4,000 villages extending the coverage of the Party’s information system to 60 percent of the whole country. MICT has set up more than 700,000 cultural families nationwide. The families are tasked to strictly follow and implement guidelines and policies ensuring the security and political stability of the Party. Their function includes serving as the eyes and ears of the Party to monitor community activities.

The Army beefed up its security by upgrading its defense apparatus and personnel. It improved its information and communications technology (ICT) skills as well as developed its knowledge and creativity in conducting psychological warfare and border defense.

Lieutenant General Choummaly Sayasone, former President of Laos and the Party’s Secretary General, told the fourth assembly of the Defense Ministry in June 2015 to closely monitor social activities guaranteeing 100 percent protection against threats to national security and political stability of the Party in the lead up to the 40th anniversary of Laos and the 60th year of the People’s Revolutionary Party in December 2015.

The Interior Ministry has ordered all responsible authorities in provinces, local towns, and villages to intensify measures in monitoring the movement of the people including local volunteers and to impose a 24-hour patrol in preparation for the 10th Party Congress in January 2016, the elections of the 8th National Legislative Assembly in March 2016, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in September 2016.

Several restrictive rules and regulations have been installed to tighten control over media activities and content suppressing dissident voices and anti-state activities as the Party moves to manage the political situation. To name a few: Party Resolution No. 36, which outlines the role and responsibility of the Party’s organs and state agencies in leading, supervising, protecting, and developing the media sector; a Prime Minister Decree on advertisement boards, which regulate content.

The billboard regulation issued in February 2016 bans advertisements from touching on state secrets, order, security, cultural unity of ethnic groups, politics, foreign affairs, personal dignity and integrity; and must promote national identity, order, national unity and cultural heritage of the country and ethnic groups, and Laos’ engagement with the international community. Advertisement on vehicles without permission is also banned.

The government is drafting a new decree on beliefs and religion, and considers a revision to a number of related laws to prevent “bad elements” from taking advantage of religion to undermine the Party and the government.

The China and Vietnam influence

Cooperation with the two communist allies, China and Vietnam, have intensified over the past five years. Laos wanted to raise its capability to control the flow of information while it catches up to the rapid changing media landscape including ICT development.

This coincided with the country’s social media growth in the last five years. Lao netizens have used the platform to engage in politics and criticize the Party’s leadership and government. Since Laos upgraded to 4G (mobile telecommunications technology) in 2012, mobile phone users increased to five million accounting for 73 percent of the country’s 6.5 million population; more than one million are users of social media.

In December 2015, Lao National Radio and Vietnam News Agency have signed a partnership on technical and information exchange to raise the quality of news products and personnel. They also put emphasis on ICT development, improving analytical skills, and expanding knowledge on world affairs.

From 2016 to 2020, Vietnam will sponsor more scholarships on ICT development for Lao state officials from the information sector targeting to train over 200 people. From 2011 to 2015, 1,500 officials from MICT were granted scholarships out of a total 10,000 grantees from Laos.

In December 2015, KPL and China Radio International signed an agreement for news and information exchange including the use of China-built and loaned Lao Satellite-1, which was launched into orbit on 21 November 2015. Laos’ second satellite is in the pipeline with the same arrangement of loan and construction from China.

In May 2015, the Lao National Television began a daily broadcast program from China Central TV featuring soap operas, cartoons, and documentaries on China’s agricultural development dubbed in Lao.

Laos will set up digital television by 2020 and receive an aid worth USD 130 million from China. This is a part of the comprehensive strategic cooperation — which aims to educate and entertain the public, and to promote friendship and cultural exchange — between Laos and China.

In the spotlight

Under the international spotlight, Laos faces major challenges playing host for the ASEAN summit and US President Barack Obama’s visit related to the Trans-Pacific Partnership conference. More than the logistical issues, the country confronts tough policy questions particularly in focus is its tarnished human rights record.

The recent leadership change in the Party and the government offers no indication nor assurance that press freedom, access to information, or free expression conditions in Laos will improve in the near future.

It is interesting to see how a controlled media will report these two events and how the rest of Laos will act in this prevailing socio-political climate.