Area: 236,800 sq.km.
Languages: Lao, dialects
Head of state: President Khamtay Siphandone
The government once again demonstrated its hostility to press freedom during the summit of the 10-member Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) held in Vientiane in 2004. Two people who served as guides for European journalists in 2003 are still in prison.
Around 800 journalists went to Laos for the ASEAN summit in November 2004. Interior ministry agents visited thousands of homes before their arrival to take a census of shortwave radio sets capable receiving the Lao-language programming of foreign radio stations. The government banned tourists during the summit for fear of their being infiltrated by activists, terrorists or journalists without press visas.
Thousands of police and soldiers were deployed in the streets of the capital to protect the visiting delegations. The news agency Reuters said foreign press photographers were prevented from taking photos in public places.
Two Australian journalists were briefly detained by the security services as they were trying to take photos of the Friendship Bridge, the construction of which was partially financed by Australia. A policeman told them photographing the bridge was banned since two rockets exploded in the area on 26 November, when a journalist with the AP news agency was prevented by the army from approaching the site of the explosion.
The government granted press visas to journalists from news media such as Radio Free Asia and Radio France Internationale that criticise the communist regime. But it refused to give press accreditation to Andrew Perrin, Time Magazine’s correspondent in Bangkok, presumably because of his report two months earlier about the rape and murder of four Hmong adolescents by Laotian soldiers in the Xaisomboune military zone. The report’s allegations were supported by an amateur video.
The foreign press has been prevented from covering the plight of the Hmong ethnic minority for years, especial the isolated groups in the jungle that are continuing to fight against the Vientiane authorities. Amnesty International said dozens of civilians, especially children, have been died since 2003 for lack of food or from injuries sustained in military clashes.
Two Hmong, Thao Moua and Pa Phue Khang, are still in prison in Vientiane for acting as guides in 2003 to Belgian journalist Thierry Falise and French cameraman Vincent Reynaud. They were sentenced on 30 June 2003 to prison terms ranging from 12 to 20 years for "obstructing justice" and "possession of arms." Falise and Reynaud continue to fight for their release, saying they just tried to spread the word about "the human tragedy that part of the Hmong people is suffering."
Media in the single party’s service
Laotian journalists — who are all information and culture ministry functionaries - were called upon to praise the way the ASEAN summit was organised.
Self-censorship is usually the rule. News media executives and senior ministry staff meet several times a month to comment on the articles that have been published and decide on the reporting priorities. The dispatches of the official news agency Khaosan Pathet Lao (KPL) on sensitive issues are printed in their entirety in the newspapers. Only the French-language weekly Le Rénovateur and the English-language weekly Vientiane Times dare to write the occasional piece about social and economic problems.
The party newspaper, Paxaxon (People), continues to describe itself as a "revolutionary publication written by the people for the people and which renders service to the Revolution’s political action." The foreign ministry also has a say in media content. It is forbidden to criticise "friendly countries," especially the Vietnamese big brother and Burma. The criminal code allows a journalist to be given a long prison sentence for "disseminating news that weakens the state."
To escape the propaganda, many Laotians have acquired the habit of watching Thai TV stations that can be received in border areas including the capital. Similarly, international stations that broadcast in Lao such as Radio Free Asia and Radio France Internationale are not jammed.
3 journalists were arrested