[Laos country report to SEAPA’s 2012 Press Freedom Report, Online media is the space to watch]
The Year 2011 was marked by Laotian government’s increasing efforts to control flow of information as internet and social media increasingly become a fresh and alternative platform for the public to voice concerns over the country’s economic and social development.
While the government has positively responded to the recommendations of the UN Human Rights Council to bring its existing media law and related regulations in line with international human rights standards and to allow the media and non-governmental organisations to undertake training, advocacy and monitoring of human right, it is too early to see this goodwill being translated into concrete actions.
The recommendations were made under the framework of the Universal Periodical Reviewto examine human rights performance of all UN Member States.
As it stands, the government restricts access to political prisoners, Hmong minority communities repatriated from Thailand in 2009 as well as insurgency enclaves in the North controlled by remnants of anti-Vientiane Hmong fighters. There are no independent media reports on the conditions of political dissidents. Laos’ foreign policy towards neighbors and government mega-infrastructure projects with negative environmental impact are taboo subjects for the media.
Vaguely worded laws with harsh penalties, such as the Penal Code, are effective tools to stifle political opponents and media critics. Producing anti-government propaganda is punishable with imprisonment ranging from one to five years. Inciting social instability through demonstration carries a five-year jail sentence and treasonis punishable with 20 years in jail or execution.
Lack of political will
Despite constitutional guarantees and enactment of legislation designed to promote state transparency and media access to public records, free speech and the right to information remained tightly controlled by the highly centralized Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP).
The Ninth Party Congress in March 2011 and the subsequent election of the National Legislative Assembly (NLA) as well as administrative changes did not result in any significant movement towards freedom of expression and freedom of assembly in Laos. The Party Congress, a five-yearly meeting of Communist ideologues provides guidelines to the state for implementing the five-year national development plan aiming to achieve a “full market economy with state management”.
On the contrary, structural and legal reform adopted by the country’s seventh parliament in June, appears geared towards a tightening of state control over the media and telecommunications sector which is projected to grow at 26 percent this year, with a total worth of between 800 billion to 928 billion kip (USD100 million to 116 million).
Four new ministries for post and telecommunications, science and technology, natural resource and environment, and internal security affairs were created. The government is also drafting a law to regulate the Internet and tackle cyber crimes.
The Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism (MICT) was drafting an executive decree to expedite implementation of the 2008 media law by providing clear guidelines on sections dealing with media activities and responsibility, including registration and operation of media organization, services and advertisements. The legislation has been inadequate in dealing with the changing media environment with little positive impact on media freedom. It has no provisions either for freelance journalists or the online media. In practice, it has increased the government’s ability to control and manage the media.
The year 2011 saw a markedincrease in investment in media and telecommunications infrastructure aiming to build a more effective Internet control system.
Growing media reach but monopolized by the state
Economic growth and increased domestic demand for information continued to drive the expansion of media outlets in 2011, particularly radio, leading to greater diversity of non-political media content. However the decreasein government funding for state-run media, ineffective implementation of the 2008 media law, inadequate media training and deep-rooted social norms were among key factors adversely affecting the professionalism of Lao media and its role as independent watchdog.
Laos now has more than 100 newspapers and magazines, including nine dailies. Lao National Television has 32 stations, including the two national television stations, Channel 1 and Channel 3. There are 43 radio stations at provincial and local levels.
Last year, the National Legislative Assembly launched its own publication called Phu Thaen to keep the public informed of the legislative process.
Satellite subscription television services have been available in Laos since 2003 and viewers in major cities have unrestricted access to more than 60 international news and entertainment television channels such as Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and Cable News Network (CNN).
At present, there are more than 2,000 media workers and their number is expected to grow as the government prepares to increase media coverage. Over the next five years, the media development strategy adopted by the Ninth Party Congress aims to ensure print media access to 95 percent of the population and extend television and radio broadcast coverage to over 80 percent and 95 percent, respectively, of the population.
The media industry, therefore, needs professional training as the majority of media workers have neither been to journalism school nor received proper training. Online journalism training courses became popularlast year as Laos prepares its media sector for the age of online journalism.
Nevertheless, all print, radio and broadcast media outlets are state-owned and staffed with with government officials. The Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism is the main state mechanism to control broadcast and print media. Media executives and ministry officials meet several times a month to discuss previous published articles and identify priority subjects. All publications are subject to strict licensing rules and broadcasts need clearance from the censors.
This means that the media is unable to criticize or question the government and the implementation of mega government infrastructure projects.
State media: moving from government subsidy to commercial support
In their struggle to be financially viable following the cut in state support, newspapers rely heavily on advertising. For example, over 50 percent of Vientiane Times, the bi-weekly national English language newspaper, is made up of advertisements.
But given the close business-politics link in Laos, this switch to business support for the media has yet to result in an increase in the quality of journalism.
Instead, media observers fear that this will affect the objectivity of media coverage of business issues. “You could have anything printed in a local newspaper if you have enough money,” said a local media source.
At a national workshop in July on the negative impact of advertising on the media, several media practitioners agreed that advertising was acceptable and a main source of revenue for the media. However, others expressed concern over the harmful social influence of advertising, especially on youth.
The workshop also discussed the executive decree on the implementation of the media law with its detailed guidelines ranging from the conduct of journalism to media management and finance as well as commercial advertising.
Making the press law effective
In 2008, Laos got its first law to protect the rights of the media and outlining its role and responsibilities. Finalized after more than a decade of intense debate and several changes to successive drafts, the law was initially welcomed by the media as a road map towards the development of the media industry.
However, the implementation of the law inspired little enthusiasm in the media which was partly due to its vague and contradictory provisions dealing with media rights and responsibilities.
Nevertheless, local media researchers noted an increase in critical stories in major newspapers, dealing with environmental and social issues as well as more frequent reporting of corruption, a taboo subject till a few years ago.
However, there is little awareness of the media law beyond the capital city. A local lawyer noted that even journalists aware of the law are not willing enough or able to take advantage of it.
There has been a lack of enthusiasm on the part of government agencies to facilitate media access to official records that the law was supposed to guarantee. Government ministries have been slow to appoint spokespersons, do not hold regular press briefings and have not made media access a priority. Journalist requests for information or comments from government officials are not honored without a signed letter from an editor of a local publication, which effectively denies access to foreign reporters and freelancers. Even journalists working for state-owned publications say one of their biggest challenges is getting interviews with high-level government officials.
The executive decree to expedite implementation of the media law aims to address this shortcoming. MICT Minister Prof. Dr Bosengkham Vongdara was quoted as saying in Vientiane Times on 21 July that the decree was necessary to fill the gap in the mother law.
A veteran journalist observed that this was just a ploy to further delay the implementation of the law. “Elaborate regulations have always been cited by the government as necessary to fully effect the existing laws but this only serves to further delay the fruits of legal reform in the country and could mean more details to guide and control the media regime, not necessarily facilitate them,” he said.
The decree is said to focus on articles of the law dealing with the public responsibility of media, regulation of media activities, media establishment procedures, media management, financing and auditing as well as commercial advertising.
In need of a journalism culture
The fact that all journalists are employed by the state makes them feel as intermediaries between the government and the public. This self-perception among journalists of being propaganda organs of the state is reflected in Lao journalists often saying to colleagues assigned to report state activities: “Pai aao kao” which literally means “Go get news” as opposed to “Pai hed kao” which means “Go cover news”.
Journalists prefer to report stories that please the government as the state pays their salaries. This dependency and the fear of harsh punishment outlined in the Penal Code has resulted in almost universal self-censorship among journalists.
The blurred boundary between media and government creates issues for professional development. Journalists friendly to the government are most likely to be selected for training courses abroad.
The asymmetrical media-government relationship leads to the press becoming a state mouthpiece and staying away from critical discussion of government policies. When Laos President Bouasone Bouphavan abruptly resigned at the end of 2010, the KPL simply reported that the President had announced his resignation in a statement to the National Assembly. The English-language Vientiane Times added that Bouasone had resigned because of family problems, but provided no other information.
Strong influence of China and Vietnam
Since 2007, the government has invested heavily in media and telecommunication infrastructure to catch up with sweeping changes in global information and communication technology as part of the national development strategy to eradicate poverty by 2020.
Foreign investment has been allowed in radio and television to bridge the information gap. In the last five years, China and Vietnam, given their special ties with Laos, have stepped in with both infrastructure investment and technical assistance. The move was also seen as Vientiane’s attempt to balance the growing influence of Western media, which is more accessible in the urban areas of Laos through satellite television.
Thai television news and entertainment programs are popular in Laotian areas bordering Thailand because of the similarity in language. Access to foreign television broadcasts has become easier in Laos with the availability of satellite television subscriptions and the improved fibre-optic communication network.
China is the biggest foreign investor in the media sector. China’s sole overseas broadcaster, China Radio International (CRI) began operating in Vientiane in 2011 with a daily Lao language news program (FM93 MHZ) for six and a half hours covering the capital, Vientiane province and Bolikhamsay. Voice of Vietnam opened an office in 2010, becoming the first foreign broadcaster in Laos since the media law took effect in 2008.
A Chinese company is the sole foreign satellite television operator in Laos since 2006. The Chinese company struck a deal with the Lao government in 2006to build Southeast Asia’s largest satellite communications industrial park in Vientiane to support the country’s satellite communications and aerospace industry.
Laos has tried to ‘geographically balance’ the communications and media industry investments by China and Vietnam. While Chinese investment in the broadcast sector covers northern Laos, Vietnamese investment is concentrated in the country’s northeast and south. In October 2011, Vietnam committed to provide additional funds for the construction of radio and TV transmission stations in Luang Prabang and Champassack as well as for capacity building of Lao officials in the radio and print media sectors.
The influence of Vientiane’s two close allies is evident in the significant and equal coverage the two nations get in newspapers in Laos.
Breaking state monopoly of information?
While the state-run radio is the main medium for dissemination of official information across the country, satellite and cable television, mobile phones and the Internet have increasingly become alternate sources of information for the people as incomes rise in the rural areas.There are more than 500,000 Internet users in Laos, representing a huge jump from 40,000 users in 2007.
There are an estimated 5.4 million fixed line and mobile telephone users in the country. About 20,000 people get news through SMS on mobile phones and about 300,000 people use 3G mobile phone services, most of them being students, researchers and businesspeople. One of the country’s four main telecom operators, Lao Telecommunications Company (LTC) launched its high-speed 4G or WiMAX Internet network in the capital in late 2011.
The competition among the four telecom companies, which also include Star Telecom Co Ltd (Unitel), Enterprise of Telecommunications Lao (ETL) and Milicom Lao Company (Tigo), is expected to increase the number of users as well as content diversity.
Internet: Inching towards making a difference
Laotians enjoy comparatively uncontrolled access to the Internet compared to people in China and Vietnam. Although access remains low because of language barriers and the high cost of connection, Internet use is growing rapidly in the country. According to Internet World Stats, between 2000 and 2009, the number of Internet users in Laos jumped from about 6,000 to 527,400 or 8.1% of the population, primarily in large urban areas.
With mainstream media as the mouthpiece of the ruling party, the Internet is emerging as a forum for public discussion. Laotians have begun to create online communities to voice opinions on issues such as the environment and the economy and to mobilize social support such as donations of clothes and educational material.
Facebook usage recorded a dramatic surge in Laos in 2011 from almost 60,000 to 139,080 users by the end of year. According to Socialbakers, a company specializing in analyzing social networks, Lao users almost doubled in the last six months of the year, indicating that every third person with Internet access was a Facebook member. An estimated 89 percent of users were under the age of 35.
However, this relative freedom may be temporary. With the new National Internet Center fully equipped, government control of the Internet is likely to increase. China is lending technical and financial assistance to the Lao government to develop Internet monitoringinfrastructure and train Laotian staff to operate the Internet control system.
There is evidence of police monitoring of the Internet and intimidation of individuals trying to engage in online discussions critical of the government. According to UNESCO, Laos is drafting a law to handle cyber crime and conduct surveillance on hackers.
The expansion of media outlets has brought more diversity in content that is more relevant to the people than state propaganda. This increasing audience could lead to demand for a media that serves the public and not just the government.
The 9th Asia-Europe Summit (ASEM) in November 2012 will be the largest international event ever held in Laos, with some 50 heads of state and government from Europe and Asia expected to attend. The government is building a press center for 200 media personnel expected to cover the event, according to the Vientiane Times. This, together with the increased investment in media infrastructure and the 2008 media law, show the government’s understanding of the importance of the media and the opportunity to use the media for public relations.
On the other hand, the government has also shown a reluctance to loosen media control. The strengthening media ties between Laos, Vietnam and China are a pointer to the type of media environment Laos is seeking, particularly regarding the online sphere. It is highly likely that the Internet in Laos will become regulated in the near future.
Some local media observers believe that progress in media freedom must await a change in the system of government. However, many are optimistic that the new media technologies and exposure to foreign media can be learning tools for a new generation of Laotian journalists.
Box: Going silent on the Xayaburi dam
The Laos government’s plan to construct the Xayaburi Dam on the Mekong river divided its Southeast Asian neighbors in 2011. The local media’s coverage of the issue was a typical example of its role as a state mouthpiece.
The Lao government insists that the dam is necessary to boost state revenues despite environmental, food security and livelihood concerns voiced by environmentalists and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). The NGO International Rivers reported that the dam would displace 2,100 Laotians and hurt the livelihood, income and food security of over 202,000 Laotians. It will also disrupt fish migration patterns in Cambodia and block nutrient rich sediment flows into the rice growing Mekong Delta in Vietnam.
Despite the high regional stakes, the Lao media failed to discuss the potential negative effects of the dam and avoided reporting information related to the controversy, including protests by environmental groups in Thailand and the position of Vietnam and Cambodia on the issue. “The Lao people only know that the dam is good for poverty reduction,” said a local NGO worker.
Partly in reaction to the one-sided account of the issue in the Lao media, the topic has sparked some online activity. There are multiple websites in the Lao language providing facts about the dam project as well as polls and discussion forums.
As the Lao government seeks to set up an Internet censorship system, information and discussion surrounding the Xayaburi Dam may be the first to be silenced.
Nevertheless, in what is seen as positive government response, a Laotian minister was quoted in Vientiane Times as saying after an 8 December ministerial meeting of four Mekong riparian states – Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam –that Laos would respect the decision of other states to delay the project pending the completion of an environmental impact assessment.