#WPFD2017 Critical cyberspace shrinks, mainstream press further muted

Laos increasingly gains confidence with its authoritarian stamp. For more than two decades after the end of the Western and Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) isolation of this communist regime, its suppression of free speech, press freedom, and people’s right to know has continued unperturbed and is taking a turn for the worse.

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 ruling Lao People’s Revolutionary Party or undermining state authority.

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 Party and state security make it impossible for the country’s expanding media to serve the public interest. 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.

In its maiden year of playing host to landmark international events including the ASEAN leaders’ summit to launch the beginning of ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) and former President Barack Obama’s visit, the first visit to Laos by a sitting United States president, the small but obstinate member of ASEAN ironically scored itself as the most restricted regime where prior censorship of media content and foreign media activities in the country was extended to publications of embassies and international development agencies operating in the country. However in those meetings, Laos’ tarnished human rights record has become a sideline issue to the regional and global trade and economic initiatives in which the host increasingly becomes an important strategic ally of the West in the region to balance China’s rising foreign and economic dominance in Asia and the world.

In the Prime Minister decree related to the regulation of foreign media operations in Laos and media content issued in November 2015, which took effect in January 2016, foreign media as well as international development agencies and diplomatic establishments are required to seek permission to publish and submit their reports or publications for review by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in collaboration with the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Information before releasing them to the public. They are also warned of losing permit for operating in Laos if their media content are not in line with policies and guidelines of the Party and the state.

Foreign journalists wanting to cover events in Laos but having no office presence are also required to submit their story proposals to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and seek permission from the ministry 15 days before coming into Laos. This includes reporters accompanying a foreign delegation on a visit to Laos. A foreign reporter must carry a press card issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs while working in Laos.

These restrictive measures have not only discouraged the operation of foreign press in Laos but also effectively prevent foreign media’s accurate, pluralistic, and independent coverage of crucial social and economic policy and problems affecting the lives of Laotian people, some of which were being discussed at important international meetings and events but sanitized in the Lao media.

Laos was supposed to allow foreign media to cover its 10th Congress of the ruling People’s Revolutionary Party in January and the Elections of New National Legislative Assembly in March but were cancelled citing the lack of personnel to handle foreign media activities.

On the more dismal record, civic space to address human rights concerns and justice has also been curtailed to the point where regular annual gatherings of ASEAN People’s Forum which were supposed to be held in parallel to the ASEAN Leaders’ Summit in Vientiane in September had to be organized outside the ASEAN host country due to tight logistic regulation and restriction of conference content and movement of participants. The government officially said the regional civil organisations’ annual gathering was cancelled due to lack of budget and resources required for organising it.

Further restriction on media content to ensure smooth power transition

A leadership change in the Party Congress and the government offers no indication nor assurance for an improvement of free expression, press freedom, and access to information conditions in Laos in the near future. Rather, at the Congress, the new leadership set firm to further consolidate its unopposed and single-handed rule to steer the country out of poverty in 2020 and become a middle-income country by 2030.

In retrospect, relevant laws and government regulation have been either issued or amended and more in store this year to tighten a state control over flows of news and information in and out of the country through mainstream media and to stamp out increasing social media campaigns engineered by political dissident groups abroad to promote discussion on sensitive political contents banned in the mainstream press.

The most crucial one is the amendment to the 2008 mass media law. The previous law was supposed to guarantee media rights and access to information but ended up being used as a showcase for Laos’ commitment to open policy to attract foreign trade and investment and was never been fully implemented. Citing the changing media environment, several draft amendments have been discussed ever since.

The latest amendment adopted by the National Legislative Assembly was in November 2016 but was only recently published. According to Information Minister Bosengkham Vongdara, the amended law was to tighten the principles and rules on media content and ensure the media implement their duties and mission as “a sharp voice of the [ruling] Lao People’s Revolutionary Party and the people in order to propagate the guidelines and directions, and laws and social-economic development plans of the state.”

The priority law specifies the role and responsibility of journalists and media organisations and types of persons who can operate media. It also provides for dispute settlement mechanism between journalists and state organization but less were talked about the protection for journalists who do their right jobs and their right to access to public records (see some details of the law at https://www.seapa.org/stifling-media-and-civil-society-in-laos/)

Critical information suppressed, crackdown on and surveillance of online critics stepped up

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

However, these “bad” news and information often slipped out on social media and reported by neighboring Thai media, international media like Radio Free Asia, Voice of America, 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 six years. The latest statistics provided by the Ministry of Post, Telecommunication and Communication showed 85 percent of the seven-million population had mobile phones and more than 51 percent of the population or about 3.5 million people access the internet. According to the 2016 statistics provided by Internet World Stats, there were 1.4 million internet users or about 19.9 percent of the population.

A recent news fanfare in the neighboring Thai media, which was also published in some Laotian Facebook accounts about Thai anti-narcotic police’s arrest of the region’s four drug traders including high-profiled Lao businessman Xaysana Keopimpha speaks volume on how information mattered to the public interest has been suppressed by Laotian authorities.

The incident prompted the authorities to call some Facebookers who disseminated news about the arrest of Xaysana for a meeting, warning them to share only local official news about the case.

It took three weeks after the incident for the Laotian police counterpart to call for a press conference on its side to propagate its own major anti-narcotic efforts in the last six months in which, it said, net “bigger personalities” than Xaysana, the drug lord who is reportedly well connected to well-heeled society and high authorities in Laos and has long been sought after under the existing cross-border regional cooperation between Lao police and their counterparts in Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand.

Prior to this incident, Laotian Facebook news sites broke out the news about the Laotian authorities’ arrest in March 2016 of three Laotian undocumented workers in Thailand for propagating against the state and the Party. Somphone Phimmasone, his girlfriend Lodkham Thammavong, and Soukan Chaithad were nabbed after crossing the Thai border into Laos to extend their passports and being charged for posting on Facebook critical comments against the government and the Party and according to a Laotian police account, collaborating with anti-Communist groups abroad to plan agitation ahead of and during the ASEAN summits.

Laotian government has been mum on the issue for three months until its national investigative police chief Maj. Col. Khamkeo Manola called the first press conference in May and had the three confessed their guilt broadcast on the Lao National Television. Prior to that, there was no clue of their whereabouts and up until their detention and trial conditions have been reported in away from the media. The three could face up to 20 years of imprisonment and/or fine on charge of “betraying the state,” the vague terms under national security charges of Laos’ Penal Code that carry severe punitive measures from one year to life imprisonment or capital punishment.

The belated press conference were widely condemned by international rights groups and seen as Laos’ typical intimidation tactic to send a stern warning of consequences to others who attempt to use online platform for the same purpose.

And by the police’s account on the arrest, there was a growing concern among rights advocates over the intrusive and expansive nature of the state internet surveillance network has so far covered.

The regime so far has several legal tools to police online communication and content including the Prime Minister Decree no. 327 on the Protection of Internet Information and issued on 16 September 2014 and Law on Information and Communication Technology, which was enacted in November 2016.

The four legislations are up for deliberation in the Lao People’s Legislative Assembly’s current third general session (April 26 and May 14). They include two bills – one on the protection of electronic information aimed at combating hacking and the other on regulation of communication radio frequencies – and two Prime Minister decrees – one on satellite communication and the other on national news and information center.

No details of these drafts revealed at the time of this report to gauge its impact on right to free expression and media freedom because Laos’ legal formulation process requires no public consultation.

Background

In 2016, there are 127 journals and newspapers including 11 state-owned dailies in Laos. 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.

Radio transmits to 90 percent of the country. There are 53 radio stations across the country (nine located in Vientiane including the Lao National Radio, Armed Force Radio, Defense of Order Radio, China 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).

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 to regulate advertisement boards, issued in February which bans advertisement from touching on state secrets, order, security, cultural unity of ethnic groups, politics foreign affairs, and personal dignity and integrity.

Laos allows foreign press to operate in the country as part of its commitment to have good international relations. 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.

Groups from Laos’ communist counterparts China and Vietnam, which provide resources and technical support, dominate the foreign media. This arrangement is made to share information, and consolidate their socialist ideology and communist ties rather than run real media business.

Moreover, the country’s slow-growing media sector and information communication technology infrastructure development has been gearing towards more dependence on resources and expertise from China and Vietnam.

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