Working under government control, reporters in Laos write and broadcast stories supporting state policy and official views, carefully steering clear of subjects deemed controversial by authorities, media watchdogs and sources in the country say.
Meanwhile, Lao citizens risk arrest, and are sometimes “disappeared” outside the country, for posting criticisms of the country’s communist government online.
In an annual survey released in April, Laos was ranked this year near the bottom of the list at 172 out of 180 countries surveyed by Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF), which said the country’s ruling Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP) “exercises total control over the media.”
“Increasingly aware of the restrictions imposed on the official media, Laotians are turning to the Internet and social media. However, the use of online news and information platforms is held back by a 2014 decree under which Internet users who criticize the government and the Marxist-Leninist LPRP can be jailed,” RSF said.
Foreign media working in Laos operate under similar restrictions, with a January 2016 decree by the country’s prime minister requiring them to submit reports to government censors for approval, the press freedoms group said.
Speaking in an interview with RFA’s Lao Service, an educational development consultant based in Laos noted that all news media in the one-party communist state are government-controlled, “and the government tells reporters what to do.”
“So they have no freedom to conduct independent investigative reporting or cover news stories in-depth,” RFA’s source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
News content in Laos is now reported according to the desires of government policymakers, the source said.
“What I know is that reporters working in the field are directed by high-ranking officials who are in charge of particular projects, so they report the news in ways that support official objectives,” he said.
With the government of Laos now giving priority to foreign investment in the country, news media have been assigned to report stories supporting the investments, and have been forbidden from reporting news criticizing the negative impacts of hydropower projects or the Lao-China railway, he said.
“Lao reporters must report the news very carefully, or they must censor themselves by covering news stories that don’t clash with anyone’s interests,” added a Lao reporter, also speaking on condition his name not be used.
“Reporters cover only the simple stories instead of tough and controversial topics,” he said.
“Any news negatively impacting government policy is banned,” added a resident of the Lao capital Vientiane. “Most news reporting supports the government. Otherwise, it isn’t acceptable,” he said.
Positive and negative news
Speaking to RFA, Phonekeo Vorakhoun—deputy editor-in-chief of the English-language Vientiane Times—insisted, however, that Lao media operate free from government interference.
“We report the news according to our duties and rights without restrictions from the government, even though we are a state-owned newspaper,” he said.
“We report both negative and positive news. [For example], if there is a negative impact from the railway project, we will report this based on the facts.”
Addressing the low ranking given Laos in this year’s RSF press freedoms index, Phonekeo said the media group may feel that if Lao media always report positive news, they must balance those reports by covering “what is bad.”
“I think they have an agenda, instead of looking at the facts,” he said.
“The Lao media is state-owned, and so they have to report according to the government’s policy and understanding,” said Ian Baird, an associate professor of geography at the University of Wisconsin-Madison with many years’ experience of working in Laos.
“Some Lao journalists have creative ideas, but they are restricted in what they can report,” he said, adding that Lao citizens are now turning more and more to getting their news from reports on social media.
“When Lao people do not trust the media in the country, they are more likely to believe the rumors that they hear,” he said.
Risks on social media
RSF noted in its April report that a blogosphere is slowly growing now in Laos, “even if comments on social media can lead to prosecution.”
In November 2019, authorities in Laos sentenced a woman to five years in prison for criticizing the government on Facebook.
Houayheung Xayabouly, 30, also known by her nickname Mouay, was arrested Sept. 12 after she voiced her concern about the government response to flooding in the country’s southern Champassak and Salavan provinces in her Sept. 5 Facebook Live video.
The delayed government response had left many Lao villagers stranded and cut off from help, she said in the video, which was viewed more than 150,000 times.
Meanwhile, Od Sayavong, a Lao man working in Thailand, disappeared on Aug. 26 after criticizing his country’s government and calling for political freedoms online and in public protests, Lao sources told RFA in an earlier report.
Part of a group of Lao dissidents living in Bangkok, Od had taken part in a June 16 protest in the city calling for political freedoms and human rights in Laos, especially for the victims of government land grabs and dam collapses that have left hundreds stuck in poor housing without a way to earn a living.
He had also called for the release of three Lao workers given long prison terms in April 2017 for criticizing their government while working in Thailand, and for a U.N. investigation into the disappearance of rural development expert Sombath Somphone.
Reported and translated by Ounkeo Souksavanh for RFA’s Lao Service. Written in English by Richard Finney.