Attacks on the Press 2002: Laos

Although Laos is an increasingly popular destination for budget travelers, it is not a very hospitable place for journalists. The ruling Communist Lao People’s Revolutionary Party, which brooks no dissent, owns all of the country’s media outlets.

In late 2001, Laotian officials announced that the one-party Parliament would consider a Mass Media Bill permitting private ownership of some media for the first time since the communist regime came to power in 1975. The bill would also create a regulatory body to control the media and ensure enforcement of official policies. By the end of 2002, no action had been taken on the legislation, although Laotian journalists privately expressed hope that its eventual passage would open up at least some democratic space for their profession.

In March, the ruling party predictably swept elections for the 109 seats in the National Assembly, with Radio Vientiane reporting that 99 percent of eligible voters had cast ballots. Most candidates ran unopposed, and no outside observers were allowed to monitor the elections.

Internet use is slowly spreading in Laos, with privately owned cybercafés dotting popular tourist centers in the capital, Vientiane, and in Luang Prabang, to the north of the capital. In July, the official National Internet Control Committee announced that it had installed Internet filters to block unwanted information. “Like other societies, we want to protect our youth and vulnerable citizens from bad stuff such as pornography and dissident Web sites that post false information about governments,” committee executive director Maydom Chanthanasinh told Thailand’s The Nation newspaper. Internet cafés that try to bypass the filters can be fined or have their business licenses revoked. In October, the government opened its first Internet center, in Vientiane, offering cheaper Web access than private cybercafés.

Foreign journalists, who must obtain special visas to visit the country, are also required to pay for the services of an official “escort” during their stays. Most government information is secret, and Laotian officials seldom grant interviews.

It is virtually impossible, however, for the government to block all access to foreign news sources, especially given Laos’ close proximity to–and heavy economic reliance on–Thailand. Thai radio and television can be heard in much of Laos, and there is enough similarity between the nations’ languages that most Laotians can easily understand Thai broadcasts. Cable television is expensive but available through satellite, and viewers with access can watch CNN, the BBC, and other international news channels.