Attacks on the Press 2001: Laos

With a growing reputation as a haven for Western travelers looking for a less-developed, more “authentic” Asian experience, tiny landlocked Laos is slowly emerging from the cocoon of isolation in which it has dwelt since the communist victory in 1975. Unfortunately, openness to visitors has not translated into tolerance of free expression, and the country’s press remains among the most restricted in Asia.

The government owns all media outlets and strictly monitors the activities of local journalists. The degree of control here is striking–even by the harsh standards of communist regimes–with none of the dissenting voices that have emerged in China or Vietnam. Major activities of the state-sanctioned Lao Journalists Association include explaining government restrictions to visitors and running a popular tourist restaurant in the capital, Vientiane.

The law prohibits criticism of the ruling party and requires journalists to write “constructive” articles. Failure to do so can result in up to 15 years’ imprisonment. It is nearly impossible for international media outlets to gather information from Laos. No foreign reporters are allowed to be based in the country, and it is notoriously difficult to obtain comment even from official government sources. Moreover, foreign news reports appearing in Lao publications are subject to censorship.

In June, Information and Culture Minister Phandouangchit Vongsa announced that the government intended to strengthen the Penal Code to include free-lance journalists who report “false news” about the country. The minister said he would soon publish guidelines listing which “truths” benefit the state. He told Reuters “there will certainly be penalties for those free-lancers who have caused misunderstandings about Laos to the rest of the world.”

The new law seemed to be a response to a spate of anonymous bomb attacks in 2000 that disturbed the country’s placid image. If enacted, the regulations could make life even more difficult for international news agencies that rely on local stringers for information. But the president of the Lao Journalist Association, Khamkong Kongvongsa, defended the new regulations as necessary to give the media “better direction.”

Those living near the porous border with Thailand have access to more information since that country’s television and radio signals are freely available. For news about Laos itself, however, most people must rely on the shortwave broadcasts of the Lao Service of Radio Free Asia. Commercial Internet access is available relatively cheaply through a government-managed service provider. The government seems to make little effort to block access to external news and information sites, despite regulations allowing it to do so and prohibiting the use of the Internet to protest against the Lao government.