Attacks on the Press 2003: Laos

Laos likes to keep to itself, and the Communist government does everything in its power to see that it stays that way. The country is one of the most isolated and information-starved in Asia, with no independent media of any kind. In 2001, the government announced that limited ownership of private media would be allowed, but for the second year in a row, no progress was made toward implementing the promise. The secretive regime controls the country’s few newspapers and broadcast outlets, closely regulates the activities of the local journalists’ association, and does not tolerate dissent at any level.

Foreign journalists frequently have to wait months for visas, and government “escorts” are mandatory inside the country. If the government suspects that a critical news report is in the works, the visa will be denied. As a result, journalists wanting to cover sensitive issues frequently travel on tourist visas but are subject to arrest and prosecution if caught.

In May, two journalists from the U.S.-based weekly magazine Time reported on the plight of the beleaguered Hmong rebels, bringing their story to light for the first time in years and drawing the anger of the Laotian government, which denounced the article. One of the Time journalists, Andrew Perrin, told CPJ that government soldiers had fired on him after he emerged from a remote rebel camp, and that he narrowly escaped being captured by Laotian forces.

The Laotian government has long denied that the Hmong rebellion still exists. The guerrillas are remnants of a secret army formed by the CIA in the 1960s to battle the communist guerrillas who eventually came to power in the capital, Vientiane, in 1975. The tiny band of Hmong rebels have been in the hills ever since but have never posed a threat to the regime. Human rights groups have consistently criticized the government’s treatment of the ethnic minority, and the issue is extremely sensitive.

In June, two freelance foreign journalists based in Thailand and their translator, an American of Laotian origin, were arrested after traveling with a band of Hmong guerrilla fighters in rural Laos. On June 30, a Laotian court, following a two-and-a-half-hour trial, sentenced Thierry Falise, a Belgian photojournalist, and Vincent Reynaud, a French cameraman, to 15 years in prison for their alleged involvement in the death of a village security guard in a clash with rebels. They were formally charged with “obstructing police and possessing illegal explosives.” The journalists denied the charges. According to Falise, the trial was rigged.

The journalists had entered Laos on valid tourist visas, but they had technically violated the regulations requiring that they obtain journalist visas. However, they were not charged with visa violations. Shortly after the verdict, intense diplomatic and international pressure led the government to deport the two journalists and their translator. Somewhat paradoxically, Laos is welcoming to foreign tourists as a source of badly needed foreign exchange.

There is a loophole for foreign news to reach the country. For instance, use of the Internet is allowed, but monitored, and officials have attempted to block sites that carry antigovernment reports from exile groups. Foreign newspapers circulate openly in the cities, although they are prohibitively expensive by local standards. Thai broadcast television and other media are heard throughout much of the country, and Radio Free Asia and other international Lao-language services aggressively cover Laotian politics for their shortwave broadcasts.