Freedom of the Press
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Press Freedom Score (0 = best, 100 = worst)
Legal Environment(0 = best, 30 = worst)
Political Environment(0 = best, 40 = worst)
Economic Environment(0 = best, 30 = worst)
- Article 44 of the 1991 constitution guarantees press freedom and other civil liberties, but the country’s media remain under the tight control of the ruling Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP), and the judiciary lacks the independence to uphold citizens’ rights.
- Publications must be approved by the Ministry of Information and Culture, which issues publishing licenses. Newspaper editors and broadcast producers are appointed mostly from the LPRP.
- Under a 2008 law, foreign media can now set up offices in Laos for the first time, but cannot invest in local media businesses. While the law contained some promising provisions, such as a vague right to access public information, it has so far served only to institutionalize the ruling party’s existing informal management and licensing of the media sector.
- Under the criminal code, individuals may be jailed for up to one year for reporting news that “weakens the state” or importing a publication that is “contrary to national culture.” There were no reports of new journalist incarcerations during 2009.
- Editors are government appointees assigned to ensure that the media functions as a link between the party and the people, as stated in the constitution. All editors are members of the Lao Journalists’ Association, headed by the minister of information and culture.
- The authorities do not allow the media to stray far from the party line, especially on issues of diplomatic concern, such as the repatriation of ethnic Hmong refugees from Thailand. The degree of editorial direction was especially evident during 2009, in both foreign-language and Lao-language publications. International media and rights groups were barred from visiting refugee villages after thousands of ethnic Hmong were forcibly repatriated from Thailand in December, raising concerns that they would face persecution from the government. Despite allegations that the refugees had little food and supplies, the English-language Vientiane Times described good living conditions in what it termed government-run “development villages.”
- Reports about socioeconomic problems, bureaucratic inefficiency, and corruption are allowed, but they must not denounce or embarrass individual officials. The Foreign Ministry, which also determines media content, prevents the media from criticizing “friendly countries,” particularly Vietnam and Burma. Most stories in the second half of 2009 referred to these countries only in the context of December’s Southeast Asian games, hosted in Vientiane.
- There are no international media agencies in Laos to date. Foreign journalists must apply for a special visa to enter the country and are accompanied by official escorts throughout their stay. The new media law’s provisions for foreign news bureaus had yet to be implemented by year’s end.
- The government owns all newspapers and broadcast media. The media’s official role is to link the people to the party, deliver party policy messages, and disseminate political ideology. Newspaper circulation figures remain extremely low, and state-controlled broadcast stations face heavy competition from channels broadcasting from Thailand.
- A large number of citizens watch Thai television and radio, and wealthier individuals have satellite television access. Voice of America and Radio Free Asia have services in Laos, but most of the reporting is done from outside the country.
- Community radio is proliferating through the help of local and international development organizations, but it is still controlled by the government, which is working to introduce stations in the country’s 47 poorest districts.
- Increasing economic liberalization has opened some space for the media in Laos. Media organizations are still run by government-approved heads, but they have begun looking to the private sector for funding. Private companies now buy airtime on government television channels. International agencies also work with private production houses to create material aired in the country.
- Language barriers and high monthly connection fees limit regular internet use to only around 5 percent of the population. All internet-service providers are controlled by the state, enabling the government to monitor communications and regularly block access to websites operated by Hmong groups abroad.