President and leader of the sole party, Choummaly Sayasone, who was appointed in June 2006, has done nothing to change the country’s ideological line. The party controls all media and a more liberal press law unveiled in 2001 has never seen the light of day.
As head of the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (PPRL) and thus of the state, Choummaly Sayasone, formerly defence minister, has maintained censorship since coming to power, in June 2006. A seminar was held in Vientiane to remind media directors of “the party’s policy towards journalists”, all of whom are officials in the Information and Culture Ministry.
Media bosses and senior ministerial officials meet several times a month to comment on articles which have appeared and to decide on which subjects should get priority. The media relay unedited reports from the official news agency Khaosan Pathet Lao (KPL) on a wide range of subjects.
Since the media only offers propaganda, many Laotians prefer to watch Thai television which can be picked up in areas close to the border. Radio France International was given permission, in March 2006, to broadcast on FM in the capital, but this did not extend to its Laotian language service.
Even though the French-language weekly Le Rénovateur and the English-language weekly Vientiane Times occasionally take the risk of publishing reports on socio-economic problems, the majority of the media only disseminate news which is favourable to the sole party. The party’s organ, Paxaxon (People), continues to present itself as a “revolutionary publication produced by the people and for the people and which serves the revolution’s political programme”. The foreign ministry also has a say in the content of the media, as a result of which it is forbidden to criticise “friendly countries”, particularly Vietnam and Burma.
The criminal code provides for heavy prison sentences against journalists who “spread news which weakens the state”. The law also stipulates a one-year prison sentence for anyone who brings into the country a “publication contrary to national culture”.
The draft press law, which was published in 2001, has still never gone before parliament even though it has been amended several times by the government and the Lao Journalists’ Association. This law would protect journalists’ sources of information, set out conditions for obtaining a publication licence and allow the creation of privately-owned media.
The foreign press is still prevented from freely covering the plight of the Hmong minority and more particularly the isolated groups in the jungle which continue to fight against the Vientiane government. Two Laotians of Hmong origin are still in prison for having served as guides, in 2003, to Belgian journalist Thierry Falise and French cameraman Vincent Reynaud. Thao Moua and Pa Phue Khang were sentenced on 30 June 2003 for “obstruction of justice” and “possessing weapons” to prison sentences of 12 and 20 years. Thierry Falise and Vincent Reynaud have spoken out in support of their guides, saying that they had only tried to “make the humanitarian tragedy experienced by some of the Hmong people better known”.
Thongpaseuth Keuakoun, the author of many articles and leaflets about the situation in Laos and the need for democratic reform, has been in prison since October 1999. He was one of five leaders of a pro-democracy movement and in 2002 was sentenced to 20 years in prison for “anti-government activities”.