Flood victims wait for food aid in Sanamxai in Attapeu province in southern Laos in July 2018 after a dam collapse that killed hundreds and left 7,000 homeless. (Photo: Nhac Nguyen/AFP)
In what he no doubt intended as a pep talk, Laos’ Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith urged the media last week to “work ethically while being reliable and offering the truth, useful knowledge and experience to their audience and readers.”
In an address to some 400 print and television media professionals in capital Vientiane on Aug. 14, Thongloun stressed the need for quality journalism in the mountainous nation of seven million. “Our media has to keep building new standards for itself continuously,” the prime minister said.
Fine sentiment, that. But then he gave the game away by stressing, with rhetorical bombast characteristic of communist officials everywhere, that journalists’ “stories must be able to kill enemies or at least wound them. Stories must convince the target audience to do the desirable thing.”
And there you have it. Journalism should be a tool of indoctrination in the service of the communist party and wielded as a weapon against its perceived enemies, including critics and political dissidents.
“Thongloun praised the media and publications for their growth and contribution to the mission of national liberation, defense and development, noting the activities of mainstream media outlets in defeating the fake, deceptive and harmful news concerning the collapse of an auxiliary dam in Attapeu province’s Sanamxay district in 2018,” a local news report of the event said.
Needless to say, Thongloun was full of it. What he meant by the media “defeating the fake deceptive, and harmful news concerning the collapse of an auxiliary dam in Attapeu province’s Sanamxay district in 2018” is that they dutifully parroted the lies of the ruling Lao People’s Revolutionary Party, which has sought to downplay the catastrophe.
When the shoddily constructed dam collapsed in heavy rain on July 23 that year, inundating several villages in the area, hundreds of people died in the ensuing flash flood and nearly 7,000 were made homeless with their houses and hard-earned possessions swept away in the surging water.
You would not have learned much about that from the state-controlled media, though, as there are very severe restrictions on media freedom in Laos. Two years on, most survivors of the cataclysm have yet to be compensated adequately for their losses, which is another fact that remains widely unreported inside the country.
Nor is there much honest reporting about the government’s madcap scheme to turn the small landlocked nation into the “battery of Southeast Asia” by building numerous hydroelectric plants with foreign (mostly Chinese) money. The country’s already operational dams on its stretch of the Mekong River have been wreaking havoc with the entire river’s flow and ecosystem downstream.
Undaunted, Laos’ repressive government is planning to construct yet more dams on the beleaguered river, endangering the Mekong’s very existence as a reliable source of water for millions upon millions of people living alongside it in Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.
It is no wonder that Thongloun and his fellow apparatchiks in the Politburo prefer not to have the outcomes of their wrongheaded policies aired inside the country. They would rather keep Laotians in the dark about such matters.
Starved for reliable information about affairs in their country, many Laotians, especially young people, are increasingly turning to online foreign news outlets, yet they do so at the risk of being arrested and charged with undermining national security or on similar trumped-up charges.
In Laos, which remains one of Asia’s poorest countries with endemic poverty, only around 10 percent of people have access to the internet. Meanwhile, even foreign journalists working in the country are required by law to submit their content for approval by officials before publishing their reports.
Some homegrown bloggers are seeking to fill the gaps in dependably factual information by producing more reliable and uncensored reports themselves, but they are taking considerable personal risks. Last December a woman who had been blogging about the plight of people impacted by the devastating flood of 2018 in Attapeu province was sentenced to five years in prison.
“The ruling Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP) exercises absolute control over the media. The only time Laotians get to see a semblance of pluralism is when the national TV channels broadcast national assembly sessions, in which differences between the LPRP factions are sometimes expressed,” explains Reporters Without Borders, an NGO that monitors press freedom worldwide.
“Increasingly aware of the restrictions imposed on the official media, Laotians are turning to the internet and social media. However, the use of online news and information platforms is held back by a 2014 decree under which internet users who criticize the government and the Marxist-Leninist LPRP can be jailed. The same decree also forces internet users to systematically identify themselves by the name they have registered with the authorities.”
Like everyone else in the world, the long-suffering citizens of Laos have the right to free, independent and reliable information about the goings-on in their country. Sadly, they are not going to have that any time soon.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.