Authorities in Laos have detained a woman for a week after she posted photos on Facebook allegedly showing police officers extorting money from her brother over a traffic violation, a source close to her said Thursday.
Phout Mitane, a 26-year-old resident of Nabouam village in Xayaburi province’s Phieng district, was taken into custody without an arrest warrant by local police officers on May 21, the source told RFA’s Lao Service, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“Phout took a photo of the police on May 11 while she was sitting in a truck that belongs to her elder brother, while he was being extorted for money by the officers,” the source said.
“Later on, she gave the photos to her Facebook friend, who then posted them on the website.”
While the source said it is common to see traffic police take bribes from motorists in Laos, the officers became infuriated when they saw their picture online.
“Facebook users were really criticizing them for their abuse of power and corruption,” the source added.
According to the source, police initially threatened Phout’s elder brother and family members with imprisonment, and impounded the brother’s truck.
Then, on May 21, the police arrested Phout in Phieng district—without an arrest warrant from the public prosecutor—and sent her to the provincial jail, at which point they returned the truck to her brother, the source said.
Khamsawan Khamta, an officer with the Phieng district police department, confirmed that Phout had been arrested, but said she had wrongfully suggested authorities were extorting her brother.
“The police stopped her elder brother’s truck at the checkpoint because the vehicle’s documents were incomplete, so he had to be fined,” he said.
“The photos posted on Facebook criticized the police and damaged their image.”
Khamsawanh said police were “investigating whether someone else was behind her” publishing the photos online.
Social media surge
Use of social media in Laos has surged in recent years, with an increasing number of people looking to the internet to find news and information they do not have access to via state-run media.
In September last year, Lao Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong signed Decree No. 327 into law, prohibiting online criticism of the government and the ruling communist party, and setting out stiff penalties for netizens and Internet service providers who violate controls.
Under the decree, which took effect on Oct. 1, netizens face criminal charges for publishing “untrue information” about policies of the ruling Lao People's Revolutionary Party or the Lao government for the purpose of “undermining … the country.”
Netizens found to be disseminating content encouraging terrorism and social disorder, or which is deemed to “divide the solidarity among ethnic groups and between countries,” also face charges, while “national secrets” are also prohibited from being circulated.
Pornography and “inappropriate photos” are banned from online publication, as well as “photos that contradict Lao traditions and culture” and images that violate intellectual property rights.
The decree also requires netizens to use their real names when setting up social media and other accounts online.
Any Internet service provider determined to be “making available conditions or facilitating” actions aimed at tarnishing party or government policies also face legal action.
Those committing “minor” violations of the decree are subject to a warning, while those involved in “serious infringements” will be “disciplined, fined or subject to civil or criminal charges.”
The official Vientiane Times reported at the time that the government decided to issue the decree after authorities “learnt that many users have used the Internet in negative ways,” including circulating “false information” as well as “inappropriate photos” through social media such as Facebook.
Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Ounkeo Souksavanh. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.