April 6, 2000
His Excellency Gen. Khamtay Siphandone
President, Lao People's Democratic Republic
Office of the President
Lane Xang Avenue
VIA FAX: +856-21-214-208
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is disturbed by the efforts of Lao authorities to censor news coverage of last week's explosion at a restaurant in the capital city, Vientiane.
On March 30, shortly after 9:00 p.m., Ginny Stein, Southeast Asia correspondent for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, and David Leland, a cameraman for the Bangkok-based AsiaWorks Television Ltd., arrived at the scene of the explosion, at the Kop Chai Deu Restaurant in the heart of Vientiane. At least nine people were injured in the blast, and Leland filmed the damage.
A group of plainclothes officers stopped Stein and Leland, and asked them to hand over their footage. When the journalists refused, they were ordered to accompany the officers to the central police station in Vientiane, which is located about 200 meters away from the site of the explosion. Authorities confiscated Leland's camera and tape, and detained the journalists for several hours, interrogating them about their activities.
The officers involved in the interrogation were from various security divisions, including the police force, internal state security, and the immigration authority, according to Stein.
Stein and Leland were released at around 2:30 a.m. on March 31, but were not permitted to recover their equipment. The two returned to the police station the next morning to speak with senior authorities. Instead they were again interrogated for several hours by junior officers, and finally asked to return on April 3.
When Stein and Leland arrived at the police station on April 3, authorities agreed to return the camera, but retained possession of the tape. The two journalists were told that they were not permitted to cover the story they had filmed.
As a nonpartisan organization of journalists dedicated to the defense of our colleagues around the world, CPJ condemns the authorities' harassment of Stein and Leland. The Lao government's policy of suppressing any news of problems facing the country, including social unrest, violates international norms regarding free expression. We respectfully remind you that Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights grants all people, including journalists, the right to circulate information freely.
We urge Your Excellency to loosen the onerous restrictions on reporting in Laos, and to uphold the right of journalists to practice their profession without official interference.
Ann K. Cooper