Laos’ dilemma: Relax restrictions as media technology gets an upgrade

The year 2009 saw Laos working to raise its information and communication technology sector, bringing it closer to international standards.

These efforts will continue this year as the land-locked state aspires to become a strategic player in regional telecommunications, linking China with the rest of its neighbors in the Mekong sub-region and extending to Malaysia and Singapore. Laos also plans to connect a current patchwork of private telecommunication services through a nationwide fiber optic cable network by 2015.

But it is not just new technology that signals potential reform in the communist-led country.
In September 2009, Laos ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which requires State parties to pursue and apply all articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and to assure, among others, freedoms of expression and association. Laos also ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) and the UN Convention against Corruption (UNCAC).

By doing so,  the United Nations noted that Laos effectively pledges to work against all forms of discrimination and promote equality before the law. The ratification of the treaties also commits Laos to the promotion of “individual freedom of belief, speech, association, freedom of press, right to hold assembly and the right to political participation as well as to fight against corruption through prevention, criminalisation, international cooperation and asset recovery.”

Despite these developments and milestones, the communist-ruled state still has much to demonstrate when it comes to opening wide the spaces for free expression. The reality remains that access to information remains heavily controlled in the land-locked state through strict management of media contents. It is expected that the situation would remain the same this year, notwithstanding strides made in communications technology.

The ruling Lao People’s Revolutionary Party makes it clear that the country’s media would largely remain dominated by the state.

At the official ceremony to mark the 59th anniversary of Lao media on 13 August 2009, Mounkeo Oraboun, the Minister of Information and Culture and member of the Party’s central committee, said Laos does not only need to bring its information technology and media in line with international standards but also to improve public access to information in order to hasten the country’s development. But he also stressed the need to strengthen the party’s control over the flow of information, ostensibly to ensure better coordination and communication between the central government and local administrators in response to crisis and emergency situations.

Sensitive information heavily filtered, critical media not allowed
To be sure, Vientiane’s ratification of the ICCPR and the Prime Minister’s decree allowing private non-profit development organizations—be they local or international—to operate in the country, should offer a welcome step towards the strengthening of civil society, and allowing the sector to actively participate in the country’s development and political decision-making process. It is hoped that civil society would also have more room to monitor the government’s record on human rights.

But Laos’ reforms in 2009 still run up against restrictive laws and harsh penalties designed to curb public protests and critical commentary against the party leadership and the affairs of the state. The Constitution, while guaranteeing freedom of speech, continues to see media’s role as that of a state mouthpiece—a link between the state and the people—not a watchdog of government and society. Defamation of the state and false information remain criminalized in Laos. Producing “anti-government” propaganda can be meted a one- to five-year imprisonment; “inciting social instability” through demonstrations a five-year term; and committing “crimes against the state” a 20-year term, or execution.

The communist-ruled state does not tolerate a media that churns out critical reports.  Journalists or editors who cross the line face disciplinary actions, although so far, none has been known to have been sent to jail. Newsroom censorship and control are enforced on a daily basis through the Ministry of Information and Culture. While a little more space has been opened up to non-critical social, economic, education and entertainment issues in the print and broadcast media, all the media outlets are expected to use news issued by official sources.

Litmus test: Access to coverage of the Hmongs
One key litmus test in 2009, and likely continuing through 2010, is Vientiane’s tolerance for coverage and commentary of its ethnic Hmong minority. The long-standing issue of the Hmong’s political and social persecution gained regional and international attention towards the end of 2009. Thailand’s decision to repatriate Hmong refugees was criticized on both sides of the border, not only for the Hmongs’ claims of vulnerability, but also for the restrictions imposed both by the Lao and Thai governments on media access to the refugees at the time of their transfer.

Diplomats and human rights experts remain skeptical about Vientiane’s humanitarian policy towards the Hmong ethnic group living in northern and central Laos.  News reports about their fates, particularly the government’s resettlement and rehabilitation program for those Hmong returned from Thailand are heavily filtered in the Laotian media, dominated by government press releases. The government’s spokesmen make every effort to monitor and rebut any negative international media coverage of the condition and treatment of the Hmong. At the same time, Laos still prevents international access to the Hmong resettlement sites.

Meanwhile, foreign aid and development workers have complained about the lack of information and communication infrastructure needed for quick mobilization of assistance during an emergency. Given government control over the flow of information in the country, the government has been perceived as downplaying the magnitude of epidemic diseases and national disasters to maintain political and social control among the local population.

The Lao official media’s controlled coverage of the extent of damages and casualties wrought by tropical storm Ketsana, for example, is said to have complicated international humanitarian and rehabilitation assistance to the country. This is in direct contrast with Vietnam’s more forthright coverage, which reported a higher number of casualties and extensive damages in neighboring areas, and which therefore all the more highlighted the dearth of information coming from Laos.

In many instances, more accessible news and information about Laos are extracted from neighboring countries such as Thailand.

Even in what was touted as Laos’ most high profile event in 2009, the state’s habits and tendencies for controlling news and information kept coming to the fore. Laos tightened not only its security, but also the flow of information prior to, and during, the country’s hosting of the 25th Southeast Asian Games in December. The government said precautions were necessary as part of its counter-terrorism measures and to prevent anti-Vientiane elements from making mischief. But journalists covering the games also plainly had to seek official permission and needed to be accompanied by Laotian officials every time they wanted to look for news outside the official program of the SEA Games.

Media and Telecommunication Sector Growing – but to what end?
Still, it is hard to gloss over a changing media landscape in Vientiane. The Lao print media sector has grown to 86 outlets this year, including 18 private magazines, to support rising local demand for news and information about the country’s economic and social development. Among these, eight local newspapers remain under state ownership, including the English-language “Vientiane Times”.

The Lao National Radio (LNR) has expanded its broadcast capacity to 35 stations nationwide while the Lao National Television (LNT), Channel 3, has 32 stations. Currently, the government allows  two private satellite-broadcasting televisions operators, one from a local company and the other from a Hong Kong-based Chinese company. However, viewers can also access a number of foreign news and entertainment broadcasts from Thailand, Vietnam, China, and international news channels like CNN and BBC via satellite.

In keeping up with this fast and free flow of information, particularly from neighboring Thailand, Laos invested heavily in recent years to improve its media and telecommunications infrastructure through grants and loans as well as technical and skills training from its allies, China and Vietnam.

The Ministry of Information and Culture has set a goal to have all key development centers in all districts and provinces gain access to newspapers, television, radio and the performing arts by the end of this year. Radio should be able to cover 90% of the country while television must cover 70%. The country also aspires to have satellite television cover the entire country by 2020.

In 2009, a number of joint investment agreements were secured with China, Vietnam and Thailand to install a nationwide fiber optic cable network to support all current telephone, Internet and other telecommunication services which in the past had been subcontracted to several private foreign telecom operators. The integrated information highway, once completed, will provide a fiber optic cable link between China, Luang Prabang, Vientiane, Vietnam, Cambodia Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore.

China invested in satellite broadcast technology to help expand local radio and television broadcasts into the remote and mountainous parts of Laos. Bejing also built a new station for Channel 3 out of Vientiane that enables the national network to extend its transmission power from 10 to 20 kilowatts.

Meanwhile, Vietnam is helping in the development of mobile and landline telephone networks and fiber-optic cable network to integrate the telecommunication service in the areas bordering Laos with Vietnam and Cambodia.

Such investments in ICT infrastructure should indeed redound to more potentials for Lao media as a state development partner and tool. The question remains, however, whether or not all that capacity for communication and information flow would also benefit the direct and open participation of Lao citizens, not only as recipients of information, but also as their own providers of news and commentary, of legitimate monitoring and critique of their own leaders. As Laos tries to hasten its efforts to improve its information and communication technology infrastructure, it would be inevitable for it to face the reality of the need to relax its restrictions on the media. How the government would handle this dilemma would be worth watching in the coming year.

All the investments in media and ICT, in other words, could help to improve people’s access to information and independent news and commentary, or it could simply further entrench government as the dominant provider of controlled news and propaganda. In which case, that other investment in the ratification of international instruments on human and civil rights will also likely be compromised.