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How CPJ investigates and classifies attacks on the press

JUNE 4, 2003

Thierry Falise, freelance
Vincent Reynaud, freelance

Falise and Reynaud, two journalists based in Bangkok, Thailand, and Naw Karl Mua, a pastor from Minnesota and an ethnic Hmong, who was acting as their translator, were arrested by Laotian authorities and accused of murdering a village security guard. The three were detained for a total of five weeks before being released on July 9.

On June 4, Laotian security forces arrested Falise, Reynaud, and Mua in Xieng Khuang, a remote province in northern Laos. The journalists were reporting on a little-known antigovernment rebellion by a group of ethnic minority Hmong. On July 11, the official Lao News Agency reported that the "three foreigners ... cooperated with bandits to kill a village security man of Khai village, Phoukot district," according to The Associated Press (AP). In an interview with Agence France-Presse (AFP), Ly Southavilay, director-general of the Foreign Ministry's Press Department, said that the journalists "came into Laos on a tourist visa, but they were carrying out reporting activities, which is not allowed." (The Laotian government, by frequently refusing to grant journalist visas to accredited journalists, routinely uses visa restrictions to limit access to foreign correspondents.)
On June 30, a Laotian court in Phonesavan, a town in Xieng Khuang Province not far from where the three were arrested, convicted the two journalists and Mua and sentenced them to 15 years in prison. The U.S. and French ambassadors to Laos attended the court proceedings, which lasted about two-and-a-half hours and were closed to the foreign press. The absence of reporters at the trial made it difficult to ascertain the full charges against the men. There were conflicting reports that they had been charged with either "obstructing security forces," or possession of weapons, or both.

The charges stemmed from an incident in which Hmong rebels clashed with local security forces, according to the Laotian government. The journalists told a companion prior to their arrests that the only casualty in the firefight had been a Hmong rebel. Two Laotian Hmong arrested with the journalists were also tried and received prison terms of 12 and 15 years. A third was sentenced to 20 years in absentia.
On July 9, after intensive diplomatic efforts by European and U.S. diplomats, Falise, Reynaud, and Mua were freed and immediately deported via plane to Bangkok. They reported that they were not mistreated while in detention. According to the journalists, the two Hmong who were sentenced along with them remain in prison.