Updated: June 03, 2021 06:00 AM GMT
Houayheuang Xayabouly was sentenced to five years in prison in 2019 for speaking up for the victims of a flood that resulted from faulty construction at a hydroelectric dam. (Photo: Radio Free Asia)
Authorities in Laos are stepping up their campaign to keep tabs on social media users in the repressive communist nation with a newly created task force at the vanguard of monitoring.
The task force comprises local government officials and police officers, whose job includes monitoring posts and comments by social media users in the country.
“Our job is to give advice and to lay out the rules and punishments for those who misuse social media,” an unidentified official was quoted as saying.
“We will give a warning to first-time offenders and then fine people for a second offense. For a third offense, we will put them in jail.”
Social media users have long been facing severe constraints in the landlocked nation where even relatively innocuous criticisms of the communist regime can land them in prison for years.
In 2019, for instance, a young mother who worked as a tour guide was sentenced to five years in prison for speaking up for the victims of a flood that resulted from faulty construction at a hydroelectric dam the year before.
The era of the regime keeping the eyes and mouths of the people closed has come to an end
Houayheuang Xayabouly posted a live video on Facebook in September 2018 about the plight of villagers and criticized the government’s response to the environmental calamity.
“I cannot be silent as we have been in the past. The era of the regime keeping the eyes and mouths of the people closed has come to an end,” she reportedly said in her video.
She was arrested and charged with spreading anti-state propaganda.
With the state-controlled media muzzled, the only avenue for most citizens to voice their complaints and opinions is through social media.
“With social media, Lao people have more channels to express themselves. They don’t have to take to the streets to protest and [get] arrested,” said Sunai Phasuk, a Thai researcher for Human Rights Watch. “But the Lao government is intensively surveilling its people online.”
A country of 7 million, Laos has some 3 million users of the internet.
The constitution allows citizens to criticize the government, but it is against the law to slander the state, distort party or state policies, or propagate information or opinions that weaken the state.
Because of that broad definition, even harmless criticisms of government officials or government policies can be criminalized at the whim of state-appointed prosecutors in a nation with no freedom of the press and freedom of speech.
“The ruling Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP) exercises absolute control over the media,” explains Paris-based Reporters Without Borders, which monitors press freedom worldwide.
“Increasingly aware of the restrictions imposed on the official media, Laotians are turning to the internet and social media. But the emergence of online news and information platforms is held back by a 2014 decree under which internet users who criticise the government and the LPRP can be jailed.
“The same decree also forces internet users to systematically identify themselves by the name they have registered with the authorities.”