Laos ‘circle of cronies’ tightly controls country’s news outlets, report says — Radio Free Asia

Laos is an information “black hole” where the government exercises complete control over news outlets, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said this week in its 2022 World Press Freedom Index which ranks the Southeast Asian countries near the bottom of its list in terms of allowing journalists to challenge authorities.

Laos ranked 161st out of 180 countries on the index, a slight improvement from 2021, when it was ranked 172n/a. But the index still paints a dismal picture of press freedom in Laos, a finding that local journalists and citizens backed in interviews with RFA this week.

“The government basically controls all the press. The 24 newspapers, 32 TV channels and 44 radio stations in Laos are required to toe the party line dictated by the People’s Propaganda Commissariat, which is carried by the three dailies that the ruling party publishes,” the statement said. index, published this week.

“The Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP) closely monitors the press and makes it impossible to create independent media. The circle of cronies at the heart of the system, in many cases descendants of the old aristocracy, keep a lock on information,” the report says.

Laos’ guarantee of freedom of expression is nullified by laws prohibiting the media from harming the “national interest” or “traditional culture”.

“The penal code provides for the imprisonment of journalists who criticize the government, a provision extended in 2014 to internet users. Internet service providers are required to report to authorities the names, occupations and data search histories of Internet users,” the index reads.

The small increase in ranking was likely due to more reporting on drugs and corruption, a former Lao state media reporter told RFA’s Lao Service on condition of anonymity for security reasons.

“In March this year, a drug baron, Sisouk Daoheuang, was sentenced to death for drug trafficking and smuggling. State media also reports more details like the number of corrupt officials who have been disciplined, fired and charged,” the former journalist said.

But a current journalist who is an employee of the department of information, culture and tourism of the province of Savannakhet told the Lao service of RFA that the work of journalists is still limited.

“Despite the improved rankings, we in the Lao media still don’t have much press freedom. There are no independent media. All news agencies are government owned and controlled by the government,” the journalist said.

“We are all state media and we are not independent and there is no variety of information in Laos. Thus, our reporting is limited, especially when reporting on the corruption of Party members and government officials. We cannot be critical of the Party and the government at all. Even social media reporting is limited,” the source said.

Reporters must pass their stories through their department heads before they are published, and they cannot cover any events without the permission of at least the department head, the reporter said.

Another journalist from the capital Vientiane told RFA that no media there is free or independent.

“If we are told to cover this event, we will. They will tell us whether or not we can go and we have to follow government policy. We only report what is approved and authorized by the authorities,” said the journalist from Vientiane.

“Sometimes we know what we are reporting is not true, but there is nothing we can do about it. For example, we know that government officials in this ministry are corrupt and embezzle state money, but we cannot report it. We cannot report any news that the government considers dangerous to national security, the political process or is too critical of the leadership,” the Vientiane reporter said.

Another problem with press freedom is that too many people are afraid to tell the truth, a resident of the southern province of Savannakhet told RFA.

“If we talk, we will be thrown in jail. In this country, if someone tries to tell the truth, he will end up missing like Mouay,” the resident said.

Houayheuang Xayabouly, better known by her nickname Mouay, was arrested on September 12, 2019, a week after posting videos criticizing the government’s failure to rescue people from floods in the southern provinces of Champasak and Salavan. country. The government’s belated response has left many Lao villagers stranded and without help, she said in the video, which has been viewed more than 150,000 times.

“She criticized the government, and in fact what she said was true, but now she is in prison for five years. People outside the country can speak, but no one inside can. People in Laos are scared and worried, even when speaking out on social media,” the resident said.

A resident of Vientiane province told RFA that people can get in trouble if they complain about their lives.

“The government will remove you right away before you can do any more harm. It’s like they’re going to put out the fire before it spreads. Even if you run away to Thailand, the government will have you. That’s why a lot of people here don’t get involved in politics,” the Vientiane province resident said.

An aid worker in Laos told RFA that social media has, in some ways, given people more voice, as it provides wider access with fewer restrictions than traditional media like radio, TV and newspapers. .

“More and more Laotians are hungry for information and are turning to social media for it. The trend will continue as Laotians can express themselves more on social networks. They want to express their frustration because the government cannot do anything to solve the problems like the economic collapse and the financial crisis.

The number of social media users among Laos’ population of 7 million rose to 51% this year, from 49% last year and 43% the year before, according to data from statista.com.

“Social media is a voice and a tool for people. When they see an official doing something wrong or judges making an unfair decision, they can post their comments online,” a businessman in Laos told RFA.

“Then either the police or the court can come out and give an explanation to the public. This is a good thing. We know the state media is unreliable. Only those who are 55 or older follow state media. While younger people follow Thai media, which is much more interesting.

Translated by Max Avary. Written in English by Eugene Whong.

Toya J. Bell