Laos is an information “black hole” where the government exerts complete control over news outlets, Reporters Without Borders’ (RSF) said in its 2022 World Press Freedom Index this week that ranks the Southeast Asian country near the bottom of its list in terms of allowing journalists to challenge authorities.
Laos placed 161st out of of 180 countries in the index, a slight improvement over 2021, when it was ranked 172nd. But the index still painted a dismal picture of press freedom in Laos, a finding that local reporters and citizens backed up in interviews with RFA this week.
“The government essentially controls all press. Laos’ 24 newspapers, 32 television networks and 44 radio stations are required to follow the party line dictated by the Peoples’ Propaganda Commissariat, which is disseminated by the three dailies that the ruling party publishes,” the index, released this week, said.
“The Lao Popular Revolutionary Party (LPRP) keeps the press under close surveillance and makes the creation of independent media impossible. The circle of cronies at the heart of the system, in many cases descendants of the old aristocracy, keep a lock on information,” the report said.
Laos’ guarantee of freedom of expression is undone by laws prohibiting media outlets from harming the “national interest” or “traditional culture.”
“The penal code provides for imprisonment of journalists who criticize the government, a provision extended in 2014 to internet users. Internet service providers are required to report web users’ names, professions and data search histories to the authorities,” the index said.
The small boost in the rankings was likely due to more reporting on drugs and corruption, a former reporter for Lao state media told RFA’s Lao Service on condition of anonymity for safety reasons.
“In March this year, a drug lord, Sisouk Daoheuang, was sentenced to death for drug trafficking and smuggling. State media also report some more details like the number of corrupt officials who have been disciplined, dismissed and charged,” the former reporter said.
But one current reporter who is an employee of the Information, Culture and Tourism Department of Savannakhet Province told RFA’s Lao Service that journalists’ work is still restricted.
“Despite improvement in ranking, we in the Lao media still don’t have much press freedom. There are no independent news outlets. All the news agencies belong to government and are controlled by government,” the reporter said.
“We’re all members of the state media and we’re not independent and there is no variety of news in Laos. So, our reporting is restricted especially when reporting about corruption of the Party members and government officials. We can’t be critical to the Party and government at all. Even reporting on social media is restricted,” said the source.
Reporters must run their stories by their department directors before they are published and they cannot cover any events without permission from at least the head of the department, the reporter said.
Another reporter in the capital Vientiane told RFA that no media outlet there is free or independent.
“If we’re told to cover that event, we’ll go and do it. They’ll tell us whether we can or can’t go and we must follow government policy. We only report what is approved and permitted by the authorities,” the Vientiane reporter said.
“Sometimes, we know that what we are reporting is not true, but we can’t do anything about it. For example, we know that those government officials in that ministry are corrupt and are embezzling state money, but we can’t report that. We can’t report any news that the government considers as dangerous to the national security, the political process or is too critical of the leaders,” said the Vientiane reporter.
Another problem with freedom of the press is that too many people are afraid to speak the truth, a resident of the southern province of Savannakhet told RFA.
“If we speak out we’ll be thrown in jail. In this country, if someone tries to speak the truth, they will end up missing like Mouay,” the resident said.
Houayheuang Xayabouly, better known by her nickname Mouay, was arrested Sept. 12, 2019, a week after she published videos critical about the government’s inability to rescue people from flooding in the country’s southern Champassak and Salavan provinces. 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.
“She criticized the government, and actually what she said was true, but now she’s in jail for five years. People outside the country can speak out, but no one inside can. The people of Laos are afraid and worried, even when they express themselves on social media,” said the resident.
A resident of Vientiane province told RFA that people can get in trouble for complaining about their lives.
“The government will suppress you right away before you can do more harm. It’s like they’ll put out the fire before it spreads. Even if you escape to Thailand, the government will get you. That’s why many people here don’t get involved in politics,” the Vientiane province resident said.
An aid worker in Laos told RFA that social media has in some ways given people more of a voice, as it provides more access with less restrictions than traditional media like radio, television and newspapers.
“More and more Laotians are hungry for information and they turn to social media for it. The trend will continue because Laotians can express themselves more on social media. They want to vent their frustration because the government can’t do anything to solve the problems like the crumbling economy and financial crisis.”
The number of social media users among Laos’ population of 7 million people increased to 51% this year, up from 49% last year and from 43% year before, data from statista.com shows.
“Social media is a voice and a tool of people. When they see an official doing something wrong or judges making an unfair decision, they can post their comments online,” a businessman in Laos told RFA.
“Then either the police or the court can come out and give explanation to the public. That’s a good thing. We know that state media is not reliable. Only those who are 55 years old or older follow the state media. While younger folks follow Thai media, which is much more interesting.”
Translated by Max Avary. Written in English by Eugene Whong.