LAOS: Screws on Online Discourse Get Even Tighter

THE ABSENCE of independent media and shrinking civic space have effectively deprived the citizens of Laos of timely and qualitative information, including those that are critical in keeping them safe from harm. Not surprisingly, more and more Laotians have turned to social media to seek and share news and information that are censored in the mainstream media, and to voice their criticisms against government policies and inactions, as well as their concerns over political and social problems in the country.

In 2018, however, two major incidents in particular put the government on spot and prompted the state to increase its oversight of media contents and online activities. The Laotian government has since invested massive resources and introduced several measures and programmes to intensify online surveillance and suppression of freedom of expression and control of media content. The goal is to counter negative narratives against the ruling Lao People’s Revolutionary Party and the state.

In his address delivered on 21 January 2019 at a Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism meeting to assess the 2018 ministerial performance and its 2019 workplan, Prime Minister Thongloune Sisoulith reiterated that all the country’s media must be the party’s mouthpiece and should be “vigilant and prompt in responding to any content on social media that are hostile to the party and the government”.

His pronouncement echoed an order of the Party’s central indoctrination and propaganda committee that instructed state agencies at all levels across the country to closely monitor local and international media coverage that has “psychological impact” on Laotians, particularly those that undermine the leadership of the Party and the state.
The move was apparently in response to the growing public defiance against the Party leadership and the government on social media, especially on Facebook. Laos has 2.4 million Facebook users, 92 percent of whom access the platform via their smartphones. In 2017, Laos had 1.8 million Facebook users. This figure rose by 600,000 in 2018, totalling 2.4 million. Since the country moved to 4G mobile technology in 2012 as part of its modernization of telecommunication infrastructure, the number of mobile phone users in Laos has reached 6.5 million or 95 percent of the country’s population.

Big Brother on the Net

The Ministry of Post, Telecommunication and Communication is responsible for the online surveillance to sanitize political criticism or malicious comments against the Party and government leadership. It has received technical support from the Vietnamese government to develop technology for such since 2016, when Laos imposed a strict control over media coverage and access to information while it played host to the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Leaders’ Summit.

To improve its efficiency in combating cyber activities, the Laotian government has received a technical support from its Vietnamese counterpart to help set up a modern telecommunication system to efficiently file, distribute, control, and screen information through a joint cooperation between the Vietnam News Agency and the Lao National News Agency, Khaosan Pathet Lao (KPL). The agreement was signed during the official visit to Laos of Vietnamese President Nguyen Phu Troung in February 2019.

Laos already has stringent regulations that cover online activities. On 12 September 2014, the Prime Minister Decree No. 327 on Protection of News and Information via Internet that authorities have said is aimed at fighting cybercrime came into force. The issuance of the law had followed the spread online of fake photos about the country’s worst air crash in late 2013 that was posted on Facebook and later an unconfirmed report on the Net about trafficking of human organs in southern Laos.

Officially, the decree’s intent is to promote responsible and constructive use of Internet in the country. But it has been widely criticized because of its harsh penalties and potential to hamper the growth of the Internet in Laos, and to undermine free speech and other citizens’ rights.

Among other things, the law criminalizes a person who “disseminates false information” against the Party and the government or reveal state secrets. It also includes offences such as revealing ways to circumvent access to a computer system, unauthorized access to computer system and unauthorized doctoring of contents (text, photographs, and visual or audio files) and dissemination of disinformation or pornographic and obscene contents.
Violating the law can mean three months up to life imprisonment to capital punishment, and a fine up to 200 million kip or about US$26,000.

Online offenders

At least three Lao citizens have been prosecuted under the law for “slandering the Party and the government online”. The three — Somphone Phimmasone, Soukan Chaythat, and Lodkham Thammavong — had been working in Thailand and apparently had made numerous posts on Facebook criticizing the Laotian government on human rights, corruption, and deforestation. They had also staged a protest in front of the Laotian Embassy in Bangkok on 2 December 2015 calling on Vientiane to respect human rights.

The three were arrested in March 2016 shortly after they returned to Laos. The next month, they were sentenced by Vientiane Municipality Court: Somphone to 20 years in jail and a fine of 200 million kip (US$23,000); Soukan to 16 years and a fine of 106 million kip (US$12,200); and Lodkham to 12 years and a fine of 110 million kip (US$12,660).

The harsh sentences meted on the trio drew widespread international criticism as being examples of severe violations of human rights. Two years later, the Laotian government would still be defending its actions on the three, with its representative at the United Nations meeting on Civil and Political Rights in Geneva in July 2018 saying that they had returned to Laos to conduct a clandestine protest; they had also allegedly conspired up with outsiders to resist the Party and the government, which is considered a criminal offence not related to the right to free expression.

Earlier, on 5 September 2015, Lao-Polish national Bounthan Thammavong had also been sentenced to four years in prison for “attacking and resisting the leadership of the Party and the government online”. His sentence was however reduced on the occasion of Lao National Day on 2 December 2018. He is expected to be released by mid-2019.

Corruption, a concert, and a T-shirt

For all these, Laotians have not stopped going online and posting videos or stories of incidents of official abuse or neglect. Among these was a live video clip posted Facebook on 4 October 2018 of a small charity concert being forced to shut down by the police and a teenager at the scene scuffling with them. The clip quickly went viral, prompting the teenager’s mother, businesswoman ‘Jeh Nang’, whose online handle is Phavady Nang Pi Liemsavay, to speak up and ask authorities why the police wanted to interrogate her son because of his T-shirt. She also asked why the police had interrupted and eventually stopped the concert, which she had organized with another businesswoman, ‘Muay Littlepig’, to raise funds for a school renovation.

The official retort was that the concert had not been authorized by provincial police authorities and that the teenager’s T-shirt had a design that had a divisive message. But the police’s actions were widely perceived by the public as retaliation to a Facebook live expose by Muay Littlepig — a local trader in the country’s southern province of Champasak — about being extorted for US$10,000 by a government official in exchange for a job position for her brother in a state agency. The expose, which was further amplified by Jeh Nang and another Net influencer on Facebook, Lahnoy Phetsangharn, snowballed into the Black T-Shirt campaign that urged the government to take serious efforts to tackle the country’s rising corruption problem.

The campaign effectively put the state on the defence. It also caught it at a time when it was short on hands because of a severe budget deficit. State manpower was put under heavy strain handling the high volume of complaints from the public about corruption involving mainly state officials in illegal logging and trafficking during the National Assembly sessions in June and December. It came to a point that National Anti-Corruption Committee Chairman Bounthong Chitmany had to issue a public statement saying that the Party’s central committee had already instructed the National Inspector General Office to publicise the state’s effort to fight corruption involving state officials and related court cases to the public, except cases which will primarily have impacts on national security.

Delayed news and response

But public rage online could not be diffused easily, especially after the partial collapse of Xe Pien – Xe Namnoi hydropower dam system in Attapeu province on 23 July 2018. The ensuing flood claimed at least 71 lives and severely devastated six villages with a combined population of 7,095.

The government was blamed for its late notification to the public about the possibility of a flash flood, as well as for its slow emergency rescue and relief operation. It was also hit for its efforts to control the narrative by preventing access to information and media coverage of the incident. Indeed, Laotians had learned much about the disaster from social media network and news coverage from abroad, particularly neighbouring Thailand. The first trickle of news about the disaster went viral on Facebook in the early morning of 24 July; the report was by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) Lao service featuring a panicked local woman recounting how she and her family managed to escape from the raging waters by fleeing to the Thai side of the border.

It took at least five days before the authorities allowed international media to enter the disaster-hit area to cover the incident. In truth, natural disaster and climate change, along with the government’s mega-development investment projects with neighbouring countries such as Thailand, Vietnam, and China, are among the highly sensitive issues that the government considers as taboo for public discussion and would rather that the mainstream media not touch.

(In the 2019 World Press Freedom Index ranked by Reporters Without Borders, Laos fell one place to 171 from its 170th slot the previous year “for preventing journalists from covering the dramatic collapse of a dam in July 2018.”)

Ways to control the narrative

The Party and the government remain determined to maintain control of the story – any story. To boost public surveillance to counter anti-communist narratives, the Party’s central committee throughout 2018 organized more than 200 training workshops for three million people (party and state officials as well as ordinary citizens). The workshops provided opportunities for participants to learn and understand how to monitor print and electronic media and collect information that can be used against the leadership of the party and the government. Participants were also taught on how to refer to official documents in guiding or swaying public opinion about problems concerning Laos and foreign affairs.

The government has also received a grant worth of US$10 million from its biggest donor and communist ally China to build the Youth Centre for Raising National Conscience of Modern Technology. The centre, which is planned to have well-equipped facilities, is to be used for youth activities to raise national consciousness against all movements that post threats to society, national security, and to nurture a good relationship between Laos and China. According to Alounexay Sounnalath, Secretary General of Union of Lao Revolutionary Youth, the building is expected to be complete in mid-2019 and accommodate 500,000 youths a year.

The “Solidarity Family” public surveillance programme, spearheaded by the Lao Front for National Construction, meanwhile has expanded to cover 835,933 families or 70 percent of households nationwide. The programme, which runs parallel to another one that will set up 2,543 Unity villages, was supported by China and is designed to monitor the movement of “bad elements” to foment religious beliefs that threaten peace and order and national security. China also helped install a communication infrastructure that used loudspeakers in 4,835 villages across the country.

A radio and television enterprise based in China’s Yunnan province also supported Laos’s Channel 1 and Channel 2 television stations to produce a variety of programmes as part of their mutual agreement to promote Laos-China Tourism Year 2019.

Civic space gets ever smaller

In the meantime, civic space has also been shrinking since the 15 December 2012 enforced disappearance of Lao social activist and Ramon Magsaysay awardee Sombath Somphone. Sombath had openly criticized the Party and the government. Despite a video footage showing him being whisked away in a car near a police post in Vientiane, police failed to produce any investigation report about what had happened to him.

While authorities relented and allowed the combined commemoration of his sixth-year anniversary of his disappearance and the 22th anniversary of an organization he founded, it was limited to a very small circle of foreign diplomats and civil-society organizations. Since 2017, Laotian government has enforced the Prime Minister Decree No. 238 to restrict the activities of local and international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) based in Laos.

The Ministries of Interior, Foreign Affairs, and Finance are responsible for the registration of NGOs and the supervision of their activities. The Ministry for Foreign Affairs is authorized to monitor the relationship between these organizations and foreign funders. NGOs also have to submit their expenditure and revenue reports to the Ministry of Interior and Ministry of Finance in details.

All these point to the certainty that the Party and the government want and will maintain their grip on the flow of information and free expression, especially in social media. In his address at the cabinet’s meeting in March 2019, Prime Minister Thoungloun Sisoulith again emphasized the duty of all state agencies to strictly monitor online activities that could undermine the Party and the government and national security, as well as other activities that will affect Laos-China Tourism Year 2019 and the implementation of Chinese Belt and Road Initiative in Laos. Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA), May 2019