Laos state media celebrated their 70th anniversary on Thursday, but ordinary citizens say they tune out the slow and censored “voice of the Communist Party, the State and the People of Laos” in favor of social media and foreign broadcasts.
Domestic news in Laos suffers from a lack of current content, extensive censorship and a heavy pro-government bias, citizens in several parts of Laos told RFA in interviews for the 70th Lao Media and Publication Day.
“Most of us follow news on YouTube, Facebook and Thai TV,” a resident of Pakse city in Champassak province, in the country’s southwest, told RFA’s Lao Service Tuesday.
Media in neighboring Thailand, an authoritarian country that remains more free than one-party Laos, have a wide audience in Laos, in part because the countries’ languages are closely related and mutually intelligible to most speakers.
Thai broadcasts are more popular than Laos’ because they are more detailed, present a variety of viewpoints, more interesting to watch, and easily accessible online, said the source, who requested anonymity for security reasons.
Another Lao citizen, who declined to be named, echoed this sentiment, telling RFA, “We have Lao TV but we don’t watch it. We watch Thai TV.”
A resident of the capital Vientiane, who requested anonymity for legal reasons, told RFA that it is state media’s inability to report news quickly that makes alternatives popular.
“Lao state media is slow and not up to date. I hear news from other people first before I hear it from the official media,” the Vientiane resident said.
“Furthermore, reports from state media are censored. If those in the upper ranks do not agree with the content, the report will not be published,” the resident added.
Decree No. 327
The Lao constitution guarantees freedom of the press, but in practice the government controls nearly all print and broadcast news, and in 2014 the country enacted a draconian law banning on-line criticism of the state.
Decree No. 327 imposes 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."
Rights groups have criticized the law, with Amnesty International saying in a 2019 report that it is “inconsistent with the right to freedom of expression.”
In 2017, three Lao workers were given prison terms ranging from 12 to 20 years in a secret trial for criticizing their government in Facebook postings while working in Thailand.
A Lao government spokesman defended the law to state media last week, saying that social media sites like YouTube often publish fake news that slanders the government. Official media have a responsibility to publish the truth to the public, Chaleun Yerpaoher, the minister of the Prime Minister’s office, said.
A resident of the city of Luang Prabang, who requested anonymity to speak freely, told RFA, “Stories on Facebook are sometimes fake and are often unclear, so I watch Lao Star TV, which broadcasts more accurate news.”
Lao Star TV refers to itself as the country’s “first private channel,” but a 2019 BBC media profile of Laos classified it as “commercial, state-owned.”
Traditional state-controlled media outlets are now using social media to get their message out, according to the senior editor of Lao National TV’s news service.
“We are adjusting the way we work to fit into the new era,” the editor, who requested anonymity for professional reasons, told RFA Wednesday.
“Before, the way we worked was of course was not modern, but now we have come to realize that not many people watch TV because it is so slow,” the editor added.
“So, we have turned to social media sites like Facebook and YouTube to publish our news and information. Many people have smart phones now. However, we still [broadcast on] TV because TV is the most reliable source of news and stories,” the editor said.
Even if traditional media modernize, freedom of the press is nonexistent in Laos, according to Phil Robertson, Deputy Asia Director at New York-based Human Rights Watch.
“The Lao government is authoritarian and has for a long time severely violated human rights. It has never honored democracy nor has it ever respected freedom of the press, including television, newspapers and radio, and it has never respected the opinions of its people,” Robertson told RFA.
The one-sided nature of Lao state media is standing in the way of quality programming, according to a professor at Luang Prabang city’s Souphanouvong University.
“Lao people are afraid to freely express themselves,” the professor, who requested anonymity for security reasons, told RFA.
“State media shouldn’t publish only the views and the orders of the government. It should present differing opinions in various forms,” the professor said.
“The media should be the voice of the people, and the people should have rights and freedoms. This is the way to make Lao media more interesting,” the professor added.
In an annual survey of press freedom released in April, Laos was ranked 172 out of 180 countries by Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF), which said the ruling Lao People’s Revolutionary Party “exercises total control over the media.”
Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Max Avary. Written in English by Eugene Whong.