Laos, in which the state exerts complete control over the media, is an information “black hole” from which little reliable information emerges.
The government essentially controls all press. Laos’ 24 newspapers, 32 television networks and 44 radio stations are required to follow the party line dictated by the Peoples’ Propaganda Commissariat, which is disseminated by the three dailies that the ruling party publishes: Pathet Lao, Vientiane Mai and Paxaxon. Two foreign-language papers, the English-language Vientiane Times and the francophone Le Rénovateur, are published by the Lao Press in Foreign Languages, an agency of the Ministry of Information and Culture. Lao National Radio is the most important information source for 70% of the population. A growing number of Laotians, aware of restrictions on official media, are turning to social networks.
The Lao Popular Revolutionary Party (LPRP) keeps the press under close surveillance and makes the creation of independent media impossible. The circle of cronies at the heart of the system, in many cases descendants of the old aristocracy, keep a lock on information. This political environment encourages self-censorship and explains why journalists limit themselves to recycling dispatches from Kaosan Pathet Lao, the official news agency. Foreign media have been tolerated since 2016 on the condition that they submit their content to the prior censorship of the LPRP. As a result, only Xinhua, the Chinese press agency, and its Vietnamese counterpart, VNA, have opened bureaux in Vientiane.
The Constitution guarantees “freedom of expression,” but prohibits the media from harming “national interests” and “traditional culture”. The penal code provides for imprisonment of journalists who criticise the government, a provision extended in 2014 to internet users. Internet service providers are required to report web users’ names, professions and data search histories to the authorities.
The government directly owns the bulk of media outlets. The gradual, but restrained, development of the blogosphere has been made possible by technological progress – the improvement of telecommunications infrastructure and internet access, and an increase in the number of mobile phone users. Web censorship remains weak. The tools and resources required to block access to sites deemed politically or culturally “sensitive” lie out of reach of the authorities.
The ruling party suppresses all forms of free collective expression. Thanks to the linguistic similarities between the Lao and Thai languages, younger Laotians follow what is happening on Thai social networks and even launched, in 2020, a rare online protest movement, #IfLaoPoliticsWasGood (#ຖ້າການເມືອງລາວດີ), which denounced, among other things, the absence of freedom of expression in the country.
Information is so tightly controlled that journalists have very little room to manoeuvre. In 2018, many local and foreign reporters were prohibited from covering the collapse of a dam on the Mekong. Independent online media are also harshly repressed: the blogger Muay Littlepig was sentenced to five years in prison in 2019 for having told fellow citizens about the government’s poor response to the Mekong flooding.