Attacks on the Press 2000: Laos

CELEBRATIONS OF A QUARTER CENTURY OF COMMUNIST RULE, a wave of bomb attacks, and signs of internal dissent all contributed to foreign media interest in Laos in 2000, which in turn spurred the government to reassert its control of information and the press.

In July, Laotian viewers were able to tune in live Thai television coverage of a border raid by supporters of an heir to the former royalist government of Laos. The official media castigated the Thai journalists’ coverage of the siege for lending credibility to what it termed banditry, but the incident highlighted the increasing difficulty of maintaining a regime of information control in Laos.

The royalist attack was one of many incidents that served to shake Laos’ image as an island of calm. A series of anonymous bomb blasts targeted public markets, restaurants and even the international airport, leading many observers to speculate that an internecine power struggle was underway. After one such incident in March, officials detained an Australian Broadcasting Corporation crew and confiscated video footage that the journalists had shot of a bombing at a restaurant in the capital, Vientiane.

The unrest did nothing to shake the Laotian government’s distrust for the press. In November, international media reported that former finance minister Khamsay Souphanouvong, the son of the first communist president of Laos, had been granted political asylum in New Zealand. But in advance of official anniversary celebrations on December 2, Foreign Minister Somsavat Lengsavad insisted that talk of a political crisis was a “slanderous” fabrication of the Thai media, which circulates widely in Laos, especially in Vientiane.

The state owns all Laotian media, which barely cover domestic instability and dissent. In October, responding to the growing popularity of the Internet, the regime issued rules making it illegal to use the Internet as a means of “deceiving or persuading people inside or outside the country to protest against the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party and the government.”

Ginny Stein, Australian Broadcasting Corporation
David Leland, AsiaWorks Television Ltd.

Stein, Southeast Asia correspondent for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, and Leland, a cameraman for the Bangkok-based AsiaWorks Television Ltd., were harassed at the scene of an explosion at the Kop Chai Deu restaurant in downtown Vientiane. At least nine people were injured in the blast.

When Stein and Leland arrived at the scene of the explosion and started filming, a group of plainclothes officers 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, about 200 meters away from the restaurant. Police authorities then confiscated Leland’s camera and tape, and detained the journalists for several hours of interrogation.

The interrogators 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. When the two journalists returned to the police station the next morning to speak with senior authorities, they were again interrogated for several hours by junior officers, and finally asked to return on April 3.

On April 3, authorities agreed to return the camera, but retained possession of the tape. The two journalists were also forbidden to cover the story they had filmed.

CPJ protested the incident in an April 6 letter to President Khamtay Siphandone.

All Internet journalists

A notice published in the state-run Vientiane Times warned people “not to use the Internet in the wrong way” and included a number of rules governing online content. The guidelines had been circulated a few days earlier by the Khao Sane Pathet Lao (KPL) news agency, which stated that people who disregarded the rules would be “warned, educated, fined, expelled, or prosecuted according to the law,” The Associated Press reported.

The new guidelines were issued by the government’s National Internet Management Committee. They include a ban on “propagating misleading news stories [via the Internet] to create doubts among the public, at home, or abroad.” The vague wording of the rules makes them particularly prone to abuse by officials seeking to suppress news that might embarrass the government, which already exerts tight control over print and broadcast media.

CPJ sent a letter to President Khamtay Siphandone on October 27, urging him to withdraw the new Internet guidelines as a first step toward improving the climate for free expression in Laos.