Reporters in Laos must cover the news in greater depth, an official said as the country marked the 65th anniversary of Media and Publication Day, but sources claim journalists are hamstrung by a lack of press freedom in the communist nation, with the public increasingly turning to social media for information.
At a ceremony on Aug. 13 in the capital Vientiane, Lao Minister of Information, Culture and Tourism Bosengkham Vongdala reviewed achievements made by the country’s Media and Publication sector over the last 65 years as the voice of the Communist Party, the State and the People of Laos.
He applauded the sector’s work in popularizing party policies and government laws, and its efforts in “rejecting false allegations,” while also providing a forum for strengthening democracy and human rights in the nation.
Somsanouk Mixay, vice chairman of the Lao Journalist Association, acknowledged that while the Lao media had made many improvements over the previous 65 years, it still faces difficulties that it must overcome.
“Our limitations come from the fact that we [media] censor ourselves too much—we must be more open,” he told RFA’s Lao Service.
“The government often blames the media for not going deeper into negative issues, such as corruption, which should be brought into the light.”
Somsanouk said the media currently focuses too much on “protocol news,” such as details of meetings.
“It is not necessary to report this kind of news, as it is better to have more in-depth news items which people find more interesting,” he said.
journalists must improve their skills and our media must develop further. We have to talk about our problems not simply for criticizing here and there, but for further improvement, progress and development.”
Lack of relevant coverage
But members of the public said limitations of the media in Laos stem from its inability to cover issues that are more relevant to the people, such as the negative impacts of central government policies at the local level.
One resident of Vientiane told RFA that the public hardly ever sees Lao journalists conduct live reports from the field, and rarely provide news analysis.
“Imagine if there was a flood and journalists interviewed local people on the cause of the problem and what should be done to resolve it? That is the limitation—the government will not allow a free press to operate in such a way,” the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“If there was a free press, it would generate public interest, but local journalists are very sensitive in their reporting because they are scared it will go against party guidelines and policy. This results in a lack of interesting angles, and not many Lao people are interested in the news.”
Another resident of Vientiane told RFA that the Lao media largely parrots the government.
“Throughout the last 65 years, the Lao media has never reported the real issues facing the Lao people—only the issues that the government considers important,” he said.
Media and the law
The Lao constitution guarantees freedom of the press, but in practice the government controls nearly all print and broadcast news, and while the country passed a new press law in collaboration with international donors in 2008, it has had little practical effect on conditions for journalists.
Amid these restrictions, the Lao public is increasingly turning to social media, such as Facebook, to consume uncensored and timely news, sources said, but the trend has policymakers concerned because of their relative lack of control over the medium.
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.”
In May, authorities arrested a woman after photos she took of alleged police extortion were posted to Facebook, while in June, a second woman was detained for posting a document to the website which purportedly showed a decision by a local official granting a controversial land concession to a developer, prompting online criticism.
The number of Facebook users soared from 200,000 in 2012 to 530,000 as of May last year—82 percent of whom are under 30 years old, according to the Lao National Internet Centre.
Paris-based media watchdog Reporters Without Border dropped Laos three spots to rank 171st out of 180 countries in its 2014 World Press Freedom index.
Washington-based Freedom House labeled the country “Not Free” in its 2014 Freedom of the Press report, noting that officials provide content guidelines for newspapers, post-publication monitoring of content is routine, and outlets can be penalized for covering issues that fall outside the guidelines.
“As a result, journalists write primarily about anodyne topics, and the vast majority practice self-censorship,” the report said.
According to the Ministry of Information Culture and Tourism, there are now 27 newspapers in Laos—printed in Lao, English and French—and 40 television stations, three of which are privately operated.
Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Ounkeo Souksavanh. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.