Laos’s rapidly growing contingent of Facebook users could soon face penalties for false or “inappropriate” posts as authorities prepare to introduce unprecedented social media regulations possibly modeled on Chinese and Vietnamese censorship laws, officials announced this week.
News of the rules, the first to control what people say online in the country, have prompted an outcry from Facebook users concerned that it may mark a new chapter in the government’s grip on information.
The Ministry of Post and Telecommunications is currently drawing up the regulations, which are expected to take effect by the end of the year, the ministry’s E-Government Centre Director General Phonpasit Phissamay told the state-run Vientiane Times newspaper on Tuesday.
The rules are aimed at ensuring social networking sites are used in a “constructive manner,” according to the report.
Users may be penalized for posting inaccurate or “inappropriate” information, Phonpasit said.
China, Vietnam models
He said that in drafting the news laws, the ministry will study regulatory models “particularly from China and Vietnam,” both of which have been labeled Asia’s worst online oppressors by rights groups.
To enforce the rules, it will seek the cooperation of Internet service providers, he said.
Lao authorities have long enforced strict controls on broadcast and print media in the country, where only about 8 percent of the population has access to the Internet.
But social media in Laos has blossomed in recent years.
The number of Facebook users, for example, has jumped from 60,000 in 2011 to 400,000 users this year, incorporating nearly 70 percent of Internet users in the landlocked nation, according to the Vientiane Times. About 500,000 to 600,000 people use the Internet in Laos.
Amid the rapidly growing social media, Facebook users have been anticipating an online clampdown by the Lao Communist Party leadership, which has ruled the country with an iron fist since 1975.
“I expected this would happen someday, even though government says we have a democracy,” one Facebook user posted on the “Laos News Update” Facebook page. “We won’t be able to say anything [online] now.”
“It’s because the government can’t stand criticism from people,” another user said.
Others were more cautious in their criticism, however, saying the rules could be helpful if they prevented the spread of “harmful” information.
“We have to wait and see what kind of restrictions these are going to be because we don’t know the details yet,” one man told RFA, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The announcement of the social media regulations came on the heels of a Lao airlines plane crash last week that prompted a flurry of posts among Lao social media users after many of them heard about the incident from Thai media.
In the nation's worst known air disaster, the plane plunged into the Mekong River killing all 49 people on board.
A rash of online rumors about the incident had prompted a government spokesman to call a press conference urging the public not to post inaccurate information about it, the Vientiane Times reported.
Social media users had posted photos of the wrong plane, and one man had had to announce on Facebook that he was not dead after users speculated he had been on the flight, it said.
Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.