Nothing really changed in Laos in 2007. The press is still under the control of the sole party and the adoption of a press law promised in 2001 was once again postponed. An opposition writer has been in prison since 1999, as have two guides from the Hmong minority who assisted two European reporters.
Media bosses and information ministry officials meet regularly to discuss articles that have already appeared and to determine which topics are to be given priority. On many subjects, editorial offices reprint untouched the reports they receive from the official news agency Khaosan Pathet Lao (KPL).
Although French-language weekly Le Rénovateur and the English-language weekly Vientiane Times sometimes carry free reports on socio-economic problems, the majority of the media only puts out news that is favourable to the communist regime. The organ of the party, Paxaxon (People), continues to represent itself as a “revolutionary publication produced by the people and for the people that serves the political action of the Revolution”. The foreign ministry also exercises control over media content. It is forbidden to criticise “friendly countries” Burma and “big brothers” Vietnam and China. “Journalists practise self-censorship because they know what will not be published. Few of them are prepared to take the risk of pushing at the limits of censorship”, said one foreign journalist who has contributed to the Laotian press.
A group of journalists and investors tried to launch an English-language newspaper in 2007, but the authorities made sure that it was put under ministerial surveillance. The project has still not come to fruition.
Since their own media produces nothing but propaganda, many Laotians watch Thai television that can be picked up near the border. Since March 2006, Radio France International has been broadcasting programmes on FM in the capital, apart from... its programmes in Lao.
The government has been promising a press law since 2001, but in 2007 it once again postponed its adoption, for fear of having to precisely define what is banned and of authorising the creation of a privately-owned media. The criminal law allows a journalist to be sentenced to a long prison term for “circulating news that weakens the state”. The law also provides for a one-year prison sentence for anyone who brings into the country “a publication contrary to national culture”.
The foreign press is always prevented from freely covering the condition of the minority Hmong people. Two Laotian nationals of Hmong origin are in jail for having worked 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 to 12 and 20 years in prison for “obstructing justice” and “possession of weapons”.
Finally, Thongpaseuth Keuakoun, author of numerous articles and pamphlets about the situation in Laos and the need for reforms, has been in prison since October 1999 after being sentenced to 20 years in jail for “anti-government activities”. He was one of the five leaders of a pro-democracy movement.