Stifling media and civil society

[Laos country report for Working within bounds: Southeast Asia’s Press Freedom Challenges for 2013. Original/print title: Stifling media and civil society in Laos]

Freedom of expression in Laos took a turn for the worse in 2012 as people’s efforts to broaden the space and self-empowerment to raise their critical voices against the negative impact of the country’s economic and investment drive were stifled.

Decades of pursuing an open economic policy has resulted in the country’s continuous impressive economic growth rate of at least 7.3 per cent since 2005, and up to 8.2 per cent in 2012, the highest in Southeast Asia – albeit, at the cost of continued restrictions on civil and political rights.

Foreign direct investments amounting to USD15 billion was pumped into 3,000 projects between 1989 – 2012, without public transparency and accountability in the process of the government’s decision-making and implementation of those projects, especially those that drive the economy such as forest industry, hydropower and mining that take their toll on the environment and the livelihood of the people.

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

Meanwhile, the local media cannot 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 dispute and the controversial hydropower projects.

Laos’s drive to open up the economy in preparation for membership to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) was finally attained in February 2013. However, this has not resulted in the improvement of the media environment in the country.

In 2012, the government imposed restrictions on local and foreign civil society organisations’ participation in its annual development dialogue with funding agencies, continuing efforts to stifle critical voices against the government’s development and economic policy which has grown wide and far after the Asia-Europe People’s Forum in October and the 9th Asia Europe Meeting (ASEM) Summit meeting in Vientiane in November.

On a grim note, three prominent cases concerning violation against freedom of expression speech were recorded this year—all tied to local and foreign efforts by civil society groups including the media to bring to public attention the conflict of interest issues involving high authorities and the environmental impact in the country’s investment projects especially on the exploitation of natural resources.

Laws on the media

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 legislations 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 in 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 from the beginning 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 standard (Slovakia); and review domestic legislation on media in order to bring it into line with article 19 of ICCPR (Italy).

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.

All 24 newspapers in Laos 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 Ministry of Interior and Ministry 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 in 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—meeting and conferences, and official views.

There are three main TV stations serving all the provinces, with 32 facilities 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 2012, Laos has over 40 radio stations in all 17 provinces including some districts and remote 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 will 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 case 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.

For example, no media reports were made when seven villagers from Sekong province were detained by police for 14 days for disputing over land ownership with a Vietnamese company. Based on information obtained by those aware of the cases, neither was the case of the police arrest and detention for three months of Ms Siwanxai, 38, of Khammuane Province in central Laos.

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

No protection mechanism

Because of the non-implementation of the media law, there is no redress mechanism when journalists were harassed or threatened.

A reporter from Sunday Paper who wrote about a chemical leak from a military and Vietnamese gold mining venture, into the river in the Bolikhamxay province, was threatened with imprisonment by a military official in uniform. Having no means of redress, journalists like this reporter simply exercise self-censorship as a way of ensuring their safety and protection.

With high risk of legal prosecution and threats to their employment or business, the majority of journalists and news agencies avoid writing or investigating critical issues, despite a broad statement about their rights under the 2008 Media Law.

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.

Prioritizing economics over free speech

The Party and government have given top priority for large-scale investment projects to generate revenues and expedite growth from the expansion of investment. They have enlisted the media to support this cause.

In the case of the Xayaburi hydropower dam project, the government uses the local media to report the advantages of the dam project, and to rebut critical reports from the foreign press and non-governmental organisations about the negative impacts of the project to the livelihoods of the people downstream. Dialogue with the government has been impossible about the project, since public pressure from inside the country is missing as a result of instructions to the media to stay away from the issue.

In another case, a popular live radio news talkshow Wao Kao (Talks of the News) was arbitrarily cancelled in January 2012 without official explanation on orders of MICT minister, Borsaengkham Vongdara. This program, which started in 2007, has opened up space for audience to call in to raise their concerns on the issues confronting their communities.

The shutdown was not reported in the local media but unexpectedly received high attention of the foreign press, as it was the only media platform to touch on the taboo topics of environmental destruction and land disputes.

The action prompted the UNDP representative to Laos to raise concern to the MICT on the closure of the program and urge its reinstatement. To date, the MICT minister has not responded and members of the public have raised the issue through online forums over the lack of protection of media personnel.

Global meeting triggers crackdown

Later in October, land and development issues in Laos would be highlighted during the Asia-Europe People’s Forum (AEPF) in Vientiane, providing an unprecedented space for Lao people to raise their issues to the international NGO community and the other governments. A joint statement was officially submitted to the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) in November.

The government was caught off-guard when locals raised their community issues before international participants from over 40 countries in the AEPF.

The forum had encouraged some participants to move further with their actions. For example, villagers in one community went on to submit their complaints on the land dispute with a Vietnamese rubber plantation to the National Assembly and Government Office, much to the embarrassment of the government and the Party.

The AEPF had taken advantage of the country’s commitments to the international community in the area of free trade, and also human rights. It provided a potent platform for local civil society groups and supported local villagers suffering from the development projects.

The Lao government mis-handled the civil-society AEPF, hijacking the direction of all sessions, and prohibiting local participants from raising issues such as the Xayaburi Dam and land concessions. Police and military intelligence officers in civilian clothes were deployed to all the sessions and made video recordings of the proceedings.

The aftermath of the AEPF signalled increasing systematic surveillance for participants and organizers from Laotian civil society.

Later, Laotians who criticized the government during the meeting would be threatened and harassed. For example, a woman from Savannakhet province, central Laos, who complained about a land concession in her hometown, was threatened and condemned by officials after her return.

In another case, one development worker,also in Savannakhet province, was required to report all activities to relevant authorities. In Luang Prabang province, activities of civil society organizations working with communities began to be restricted by the local authorities.

Anne Sophie and Sombath

The expulsion of a Swiss development aid agency director Anne-Sophie Gindroz and the enforced disappearance of Sombath Somphone were illustrative points of a systematic crackdown on the network of local NGOs. The two – apart from being vocal advocates against the impact of free trade and supporters of community empowerment – played key roles in organizing the AEPF in Vientiane.

Gindroz was ordered expelled on 7 December by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs after she wrote a letter urging donor participants of the regular development roundtable in Laos to reconsider how local civil society groups participated in the activity. The government said that her letter violated a law obliging foreign aid workers to respect the laws of the country. They ordered her to leave within 48-hours from receiving notice.

On 15 December 15, Sombath Somphone, an internationally-awarded Lao community development worker, was kidnapped by unidentified men in Vientiane in front of a police outpost with officers on duty. (For more information, visit www.sombath.org). The incident generated international outcry against the Lao government for keeping silent on the abduction, thus casting guilt on its complicity over the disappearance.

Needless to say, the two incidents, which occurred within one week of each other, generated little attention from local media, which only presented official statements.

Local journalists say they are aware of what happened to Sombath, but refrain from reporting on the case because the authorities closely follow up local news agencies on this case.

Outlook

Communities in Lao are trying to raise their voices to seek redress on the large scale violation of the social, economic and cultural human rights.

But given the above situation, the government is expected to continue to crack down on free speech and critical views against its policies. The rules restricting free speech are expected to be more strictly applied on the media and civil society, making it more difficult for them to work locally.

This situation has made it more urgent to have effective means of redress for regional and international human rights mechanisms, including those in the ASEAN.