Is no news good news?

Lao PDR continues to dwell at bottom of press freedom and freedom od expression rankings in 2013. Any space and self-empowerment created by the civil society to raise critical voices against the negative impact of the state’s economic and investment drive was has been stifled by the the government that has been on the defensive against international criticism and pressure on its poor handling of the investigation into the enforced disappearance of revered community worker Sombath Somphone since December 15, 2012.

In effect, local media’s zero coverage of progress in the police investigation of Sombath’s disappearance, has also cast doubt over ASEAN’s sincerity in addressing human rights violations. Persistent attempts by the international media to get interviews with Laotians about the issues have been consistently denied.

Sombath’s disappearance and the government’s recalcitrant attitude towards external pressure have a chilling effect on freedom of expression among development community in Laos.

Those who worked with Sombath within the small circle of the community development movement he spearheaded since 2005 has gone low profile, with some of them reportedly on the government’s watch list.

Nevertheless, the mobility of his wife Singaporean Dr. Ng Shui Meng has not been restricted. At least she was still allowed to speak on a number of occasions to international media about the fate of her husband.

Aside its highly-promoted effort to modernize its information and communication technology, there has been no indication that the ruling Communist Party is willing to ease its tight grip over freedom of expression and the media.

Booming economy

Decades of pursuing a more open economic policy has resulted in the country’s continuous impressive economic growth rate of at least 7.3 per cent since 2005, with a high 8.1 per cent in 2013, the best in Southeast Asia.

Foreign direct investments amounting to 25 billion USD was pumped into over 48,000 projects between 1989 – 2013, but without public transparency and accountability on government’s decision-making and implementation of these projects, particularly especially those that drive the economy such as forest industry, hydropower and mining that also take their toll on the environment and the livelihood of communities.

There were cases where local villagers’ attempts to protest against land management and unfair compensation were met with threats of imprisonment or death.

The local media, while growing in number and cashing in on new information and communication technology could not provide a space for those victims to air their grievances. Being state-owned or controlled, they were prohibited from doing investigative reports on growing problems involving land disputes and controversial hydropower projects.

The government maintained lip-service about the important role of media in the anti-corruption drive, but in the past year, no major corruption case was ever reported in the media. Worse still, the government has moved to control increasingly vibrant online social media community in Laos, especially Facebook. However, restrictions has not gone to the extent of blocking the site.

Using the pretext of a rash of online rumors and photos about the country’s worst airplane crash in October 2013, the new regulation announced may soon penalize false and inappropriate texts and photos. The scheme was modeled after the regulatory regime introduced by its communist allies China and Vietnam, which notoriously and consistently crackdown on democracy and rights activists who use cyberspace to circumvent the tight control of the traditional media.

Entrenched control

Lao media serves as a propaganda tool of the state and the Lao People’ Revolutionary Party which has ruled the country since 1975. The official policy is for media to serve the government’s agenda and not of the public. Under this framework, any attempt by the media to expose corruption cases or even slight criticism of high authorities could be easily interpreted as subverting the state or the Party under the Article 65 of the Penal Code, prohibiting propaganda against the state and undermining state authority.

In compliance with the international standards to access foreign aid and gain membership to the WTO, Laos has developed dozens of legislation, many of which supposedly support the rights and the role of media. However these guarantees remain on paper and have done little to promote and protect freedom of expression and freedom of the media.

For example, paragraph 1 of article 52 of the 2008 Media Law urges organizations and individuals not to obstruct journalists reporting news, or interfere in the news content and electronic media programs. Paragraph 5 of the same article of the law states that organizations and individuals must not physically abuse, force, threaten and accuse the media.

However, these provisions have not been used to protect media. Instead, media law has been criticised for prioritizing control over protecting media rights. The law has never been enforced or used because an implementing decree has not been made as of March 2013.

So far, only Prime Minister’s Moratorium No. 27 on the prevention and address of negative social impacts has been issued to facilitate the role of the media in helping tackle social problems especially investigating corruption among state officials.

The poor protection of the right to freedom of expression has been raised at the international level, during the Universal Periodic Review session in 2011 on Laos’s human rights performance. Various countries raised concern or recommended to implement legal provisions protecting freedom of speech in accordance with ICCPR (Canada); comply fully with the rights to political participation (Mexico); amend further its law on the Media, the on publications and other related regulations to comply with International human rights standards (Slovakia); and review domestic legislation on media in order to bring it into line with article 19 of ICCPR (Italy).

The review exercise, the Lao government pledged to support to these recommendations, raising hope towards an improved media and civil society environment.

Nevertheless, violations of the rights of media of media freedom continues both at the structural level in terms of ownership structure and state control mechanisms, as well as in day-to-day operations in the practice of political interference, newsroom censorship and self-censorship.

State-owned media

The media in Laos is either owned or controlled by the Party and the state. In the last decade, the media sector has been partially privatised to support the rising public consumption of the information, although content remains strictly controlled by the Ministry of Information and newsroom censorship.

Currently there are 118 print publications, up from 90 in 2010 including 24 newspapers in Laos which are state run, including the daily, weekly and quarterly publications. The main newspapers in Laos include Pasaxon (The People), Vientiane Mai (New Vientiane), Pathet Lao (State of Laos), Vientiane Times (English language), and Lao Phatthana (Lao Development).

Some of them are classified as news agencies such as Lao News Agency, Vientiane Times, and Vientiane Mai, while others work under the respective ministries such as the ministries of Interior and of Trade and Industry; and mass organizations such as Lao Women’s Union and Lao Youth Union. In general, the Lao newspapers are often urban centric, and target people with high level of political understanding among the upper and middle classes. The main purpose of these newspapers is to serve the government and the Party.

Newspapers mostly attract readership from ages between 30 and 40, who are now unhappy with the topics and articles in the newspapers that often consists of dull governmental affairs, meetings and conferences, and official views.

There are three main TV stations serving all the provinces, with 37 facilities (up from 32 in 2010) including district, provincial and central stations. However, more and more Lao people enjoy watching the 40-odd cable channels, such as BBC, CNN, CNBC, ABC, TV5, HBO, NHK, Star Movies, Discovery, AXN, plus Thai, Chinese, Vietnamese and other channels that are streamed uncensored.

By the end of 2013, Laos had 53 radio stations in all 17 provinces including some remote districts and communities. As the Lao National Radio cannot reach remote districts in the provinces, the National Socio-Economic Development Plan (NSEDP) has encouraged the establishment of more radio stations in remote areas to ensure that the people in rural villages receive information.

Radio is a very important medium for people from diverse ethnic groups and other communities with low literacy rates. In addition, there are international radio channels such as the Chinese Radio International, CFI (France), ABC (Australia), VOA (Voice of America), and the Lao language service of Radio Free Asia. Thai radio is popular among the Lao people because of the similarities in language and cultures.

Control mechanisms

The Constitution dictates that the media should be guided by the Party and the state, and is officially controlled to serve their policies through the Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism (MICT).

In effect, the journalists cannot practice professionalism, since they work according to instructions from the Government Office, Central Party Committee and the Politburo through the MICT. MICT conducts weekly meetings with editors to discuss the news reporting and give feedback in cases of critical reporting or if the news has negative impacts on policies and the state.

Journalists who are critical of the government policy or high-level authorities will be either warned or restricted in their coverage.

Although no journalist has reportedly been jailed for their works, interference usually comes in the form of internal disciplinary actions by their offices for defying censorship orders. For example, since the world economy had reeled from the financial crisis, the Lao media has been instructed to report carefully about the issue so as to minimise public reaction.

Land disputes, especially those involving foreign investment with the consent of the authorities, is a taboo topic for the media. MICT has instructed the media not to cover these issues.

No protection mechanism, no quality media

Despite the constitutional guarantee of freedom of expression and freedom of the media and the 2008 press law that was supposed to protect media rights and guarantee media’s access to information, journalists simply rely on an exercise self-censorship and stay away from writing or investigating critical issues as a way of ensuring their safety and protection.

The pending debate to come up with the implementing guidelines of the press law, which should include protection mechanism for the media workers has been on a hiatus since 2012. The major concern of the media community was that the detailed implementation guidelines, instead of protecting media rights would be further restrict media freedom.

Newsroom censorship and obstruction of media workers happen in Laos on regular basis due to the tight control of contents but it was simply unreported. The failure by the media community themselves to challenge the authorities over the number of violation of media rights has perpetuated impunity in violence and the abuse of laws against the media in Laos.

The arbitrary cancellation of the popular live radio news talk show Wao Kao (Talks of the News) in January 2012 without official explanation on orders of MICT minister Borsaengkham Vongdara has never been resolved.

The program, established in 2007 by an initiative of journalist-turned development worker Ounkeo Souksavanh is the only media platform to touch on the taboo topics of environmental destruction and land disputes and provided public space for audience to call in to raise their concerns on the issues confronting their communities. The program host Ounkeo itself has reportedly left the country after over a year of struggling with the authorities to reinstate the program.

To date, no news talk program similar to the banned Wao Kao program has been introduced over Lao radio.

The Lao Journalists Association (LJA), which was supposed to speak up for the media rights is instead providing another layer of control, since it is under the MICT structure, with the incumbent minister as a chair. All journalists are required to be a member of the LJA. Although membership in the association facilitates work and also provides support for professional trainings, LJA does not function as a professional organisation to protect the rights of media.

Compounded with the lack of sense of ownership of their work and the low salaries they receive, there is no motivation for local media to try their best effort to write quality and critical stories.

Although a good number of journalists have been exposed to local and overseas training, support from news organisations remains inadequate and uneven between state and private media. To start with, however, exposure to international experience of news coverage is limited as news agencies are unwilling to support the expense.

Disappearance and freedom of speech

The first anniversary of the enforced disappearance of Sombath, an internationally-awarded Lao community development worker passed without a trace of him or any public statement by the Laotian government to show it worked vigorously to resolve the case.

Rather, the state inaction on the case cast guilt on its complicity over the disappearance and its attempt to cover up the motive and find and a mastermind behind his disappearance.

Sombath was kidnapped by unidentified men in Vientiane in front of a police outpost with officers on duty. Despite a police close-circuit camera record obtained by Sombath’s friends pointing to the likelihood of him being abducted, Laotian authorities concerned have shown lack of enthusiasm in a search for those suspects in the video.

Development NGOs and donors of Laos also pressed for the issue at their annual dialogue with the government but only received an empty promise.

On the only positive development so far, Singaporean government, due to strong pressure from regional and international right groups as well as its parliamentarians and the fact that Sombath’s wife is a Singaporean has broken ASEAN principles of non-interference by raising its misgivings with Laotian top leaders on a number of occasions.

The impunity climate surrounding the case has effectively discouraged the civil society in Laos from speaking up against the government.

A keen observer of Laos will not read any report about Sombath’s case in the local media.

Government officials avoided giving clear response to the international media’s query about the case. The coverage of issues of public interest concerning corruption involving the state and business deals and negative impact of mega development projects in 2013 were either marginal and pro-government in the local media.

For example, the recent Thongkhankham market fire in Vientiane which was widely speculated to be caused by arson and linked to the capital’s exorbitant land prices has not been given a proper attention in the laos media despite a huge loss to business and property vendors in the market.

Local media merely reported the incident without further follow-up. Angry shopkeepers took to uploading video clips widely circulated on Facebook to vent the lack of assistance or compensation from the state. Many of them desperately encroached public space near by the burnt market to continue their trade, but were ejected by the police. One video showed a woman vendor quarreling with the police who attempted to evict her.

In another case, the Lao media report on the government’s proposed Don Sahong hydropower dam, to be built on a site very close to the Lao-Cambodian border has been on positive tone disregarding information and critical comments on the negative impact of the project on the living habitats on the lower Mekong basin.

However, in countering criticism against the project played out mostly in Thai and international media, Laotian government at least twice has invited some influential media such as Radio Free Asia which has critical tone against the dam project to visit the dam site. However, their movement has been closely scrutiny by Laotian officials.

In recently years, Laos’ gesture of openness toward foreign media, though selectively on critical media is seen as a tactical move to counter international pressure or criticism against its development projects.

Muffling vibrant social media

Online expression has largely been untouched by the state due to the lack of surveillance skills and technology resources but is widely presumed by locals to be monitored. While the state views the rapid growth of telecom sector as a way of getting state revenue and a way around the as transport infrastructure bottleneck keeping Laotians apart, it is aware of the downside impact of easing people’s communication access. People’s easier and diversified access to telecom facilities made the flow of information from outside especially from those exiled anti-communist community harder to control.

There are five main telecommunication providers, and 70 percent of villages across the country have access to the fibre optic system allowing 86 percent of the population to have access to telephones. Over the year 2013, the post and telecommunications sector generated almost 146 million USD in state revenue.

However, in recent years the government has begun to invest more in ICT trainings for its personnel with grants and capacity-building support from China and Vietnam in response to the fast-growing social media community.

About 8 percent of the 6.5 million population, or between 500,000 and 600,000 are connected to internet. Of this number, there are about 400,000 Facebook users, up from 190,000 in 2012 and  60,000 in 2011.

Due to the tight control over the mainstream media, communities in Lao turn to web forums and social media on the internet as an alternative source of uncensored information and as a way of raising their voices to seek redress on the large-scale violation of the social, economic and cultural human rights.

In an obvious sign of agitation, the government said in October 2013 that it would introduce social media regulation under which Facebook users could be penalised for posting false or inappropriate information including photos.

The Ministry of Post and Telecommunications is responsible for drawing up the regulations to ensure social networking sites are used in a “constructive manner,” according to a news report in the English-language Vientiane Times on 24 October 2013.

It was not clear if the offenses prescribed under the regulation could be punishable by any criminal law but it would model after China and Vietnam, the two worst enemies of internet freedom.

Laos does not have a cybercrime act, but according to the ministry, new regulation would allow concerned authorities to seek cooperation from internet service providers to address sensitive information.

The announcement of the social media regulations followed the government’s failure to be prompt in giving adequate information to fill public need in response to plane crash in October that killed all 49 persons on board.

The government was caught off guard in dealing with a flurry of uncensored news and photos posted and shared on social media network by Laotian users after the latter learnt about the incident from the Thai media instead of local media which, due to the tight control, could not reported promptly about it.

Outlook

The Lao Peoples Revolutionary Party will hold its 40th party congress in 2016, which is also the year Laos chairs ASEAN. The preparation for this landmark year is unlikely to favor of freedom of expression and pro-democracy voices in and outside the country. With the new social media regulation on hand, state clampdown on Facebook users is inevitable and could even be intensified.

Nevertheless it is interesting to see how the government’s resistance to sustained regional and international pressure for the improvement of its record on human rights and fundamental freedom, would impact the media environment in Lao PDR.