Freedom of expression, <br>freedom of the press

Mr. Chairman,
Ladies and Gentlemen:

It is indeed an honor for me to be given the opportunity to speak at this prominent assembly, to share with you information on freedom of the press and freedom of opinion, in the Lao People's Democratic Republic, or the Lao PDR.

Thank you to the Transnational Radical Party, the National Council of Burma,
The Action for Democracy in Vietnam, and last but not least, the Lao Movement for Human Rights, for this unique privilege.

The Lao PDR is an authoritarian communist state, ruled by one single party, the Lao People's Revolutionary Party or LPRP.

Since it seized full control of power in 1975, the LPRP ruled without the help of a constitution until 1991, when one was promulgated. In comparison with its predecessor under the monarchist regime, the 1991 Constitution has a much wider framework, outlining a system composed of executive, legislative, and judiciary branches, defining basic civil liberties and obligations.

Nevertheless, application of this Constitution tends to be selective, driven by the interests of the Party/State.

Although Article 6 clearly puts the State in charge of protecting People's liberties and democratic rights, there is clearly a conflict of interest when the violator and the enforcer are one and the same.

This atmosphere of impunity at the highest level results in the rampant violations of the most basic human rights in the Lao PDR.

However, the topic of my presentation today will focus only on Article 31 of the
1991 Constitution, which provides for freedom of speech, the press, assembly, and association.

The most publicized violation of this article is illustrated by the case of the three prisoners of conscience, Thongsouk Saysangkhy, Ratsamy Khamphoui, and Feng Sakchittaphong. They were arbitrarily arrested in 1990, tried in 1992 and sentenced to 14 years imprisonment for "crimes against the State" when they exercised their constitutional rights by advocating a multi-party system of government, and by criticizing the government's political restrictions.

That those three people were high government officials as well as members of the intellectual elite of the regime did not make any difference. They were arrested, tried, and sent to be jailed in the northern remote Huaphanh province, bordering Vietnam, in conditions so harsh, that Thongsouk Saysangkhy died in 1998, and Khamphoui and Sakchittaphong's health conditions are declining.

One blatant violation of the freedom to demonstrate was illustrated by the crackdown on the first ever attempted pro-democracy march on October 26, 1999, led by teachers and students.

Fifteen minutes before the march was to begin, a number of demonstrators were rounded up and carted away. Five of the movement leaders, Thongpaseuth Keuakoun, Khamphouvieng Sisa-at, Aloun Phengphanh, Bouavanh Chanmanivong, and Keochay were never heard about again, at least officially, until June of this year, when questions on their whereabouts were put to the Lao parliamentarian delegation, on a visit to the European Parliament in Strasbourg. According to one of the members of the Lao National Assembly, the five leaders of the "26 October movement" as it is known now, have been tried by the criminal court, and are now serving out their sentences. This claim cannot yet be confirmed by independent sources.

Our distinguished monsieur Dupuis and his colleagues present here, staged a short-lived demonstration in Vientiane on October 26, 2001 to commemorate the second anniversary of the Students failed attempt of 1999. They can probably tell you in more vivid details about the consequences of a peaceful demonstration in the Lao PDR.

In its most recent report on the Human Rights situation in the Lao PDR, the U.S. State Department said that " The Constitution provides for freedom of speech and of the press; however, the government severely restricts political speech and writing in practice. The government also prohibits most criticism that it deems harmful to its reputation.
The Penal Code forbids slandering the State, distorting party and state policies, inciting disorder, or propagating information or opinions that weaken the State."

Infraction of the penal code carries a penalty of 1 to 5 year-imprisonment.

So it is safe to say that free press is non-existent in the Lao PDR. All domestic print and electronic media are either owned or controlled by the State. They all serve to publicize Government policies, Party directives under the supervision of Party representatives.

The severe restriction on the free flow of information has pushed the population to seek information and entertainment from international sources, the most important of which is Thailand, as it is more easily accessible due to the geographical proximity, and the language as well as cultural affinities.

The Government allows some foreign newspapers and magazines to be sold in authorized outlets, such as hotels frequented by foreigners. It is practically impossible to get news from Laos.
Foreign news agencies are not allowed to base correspondents there but have to rely on local stringers, under the Government's scrutiny.

Articles on travel and tourism are featured from time to time in international publications, but hard news rarely hits the newsstand.

Lao authorities selectively permit foreign journalists to cover events of an international nature in Laos. Those journalists have to apply for special visas, which normally are granted. However to those the government feels are critical of Laos in their reports, authorities simply keep silent and ignore their requests.

For those journalists to whom visas are granted, once in Laos, their activities are quite limited; they are not permitted free access to information sources or to travel without an official escort, for which they have to pay on a daily basis.

Prior to the November 2001 ASEAN- EU Summit in Vientiane, citizens were "reminded of their responsibilities" vis-a-vis the state. This amounted to a veiled threat should any "negative information" be provided to the foreign press corps.

As a result, when a bomb exploded in Vientiane while Mr. Somsavat Lengsavat, minister of foreign affairs, was hosting heads of delegations at a dinner on the evening preceding the meeting, the foreign press corps scrambled for information.

It came as no surprise that every person the journalists talked to, from officials to ordinary passers-by, denied ever having heard an explosion, loud though it was.
Out of frustration, a foreign correspondent found the needed information from a news agency based in Bangkok, Thailand.

Much later, when asked about the explosion by a foreign journalist during a press conference, Mr. Somsavat played down the explosion and claimed that it was probably caused by unexploded ordinance, dating back to the US bombings of the Vietnam War era. A rather humorous statement, since there was no record of any US bombing in Vientiane.

Most of the time, newsworthy events taking place in Laos go unreported in the domestic media. When carried by international media, the Government invariably attributes them to "fabrications" or "slander" by bad elements. Such was the case with Khamxay, a cabinet minister and son of the late "Red" Prince Souphanouvong.

Mr. Khamxay Souphanouvong defected in late 2000. Even as we speak, while he has been officially granted political asylum by New Zealand, as confirmed by that country's Prime Minister, the Lao government still claims that Mr. Khamxay is on medical leave.

Satellite dishes seen in some urban and rural areas give citizens access to cable news networks via satellite television. Reliable news about Laos itself, however,
is rather scarce.

The US Department of State also reports that " the government requires registration of receiving satellite dishes and a one-time licensing fee for their use, largely as a revenue-generating scheme, but otherwise makes no effort to restrict their use."

Internet use has been introduced recently in Laos, along with the arrival of foreign tourists, mostly Western. One aptly observed that Internet services seem to be available only in areas favored by foreign tourists, such as Luang Prabang, Luang Namtha, Vang Vieng, and Xieng Khouang. Internet services are more widely used in the capital city of Vientiane where embassies, businesses, and international organizations are based.

Internet services are still beyond the means of the average Lao citizens.
Besides government officials, the majority of people who can afford the use of internet services include young people from affluent Lao families who use it for fun: to view photos, music web sites, e-mail or chat services, rather than searching for news or information.

Although Internet use has increased in Laos lately, it remains small with three known service providers, one of which is run by the state, approximately 3000 registered users, and a rough total of 30,000 Lao occasional users.

In October 2000, the National Internet Control Committee promulgated highly restrictive regulations concerning internet use by citizens, curtailing significantly the freedom of expression. It made "disturbing the peace and happiness of the community by reporting misleading news" criminal acts.

Meanwhile, Laos has pledged to triple Laotian per capita income to at least US $ 1,200.00 by 2020, and to end opium production by 2005. The Lao People's Revolutionary Party says it needs complete support from the country's media in order to achieve these goals.

As an indication of how the government plans to secure the complete support of the media, in 2001 the Minister of Information and Culture announced that Laos will introduce a law to tighten control over local media.

The new media law would make state-employed and free-lance journalists cover the news in a way that is more favorable to the government. It would prohibit reports that could stir unrest or opposition against the government, or threaten national security. It would create a regulatory media control body to keep coverage in line with the policies of the government, with the authority to shut down any newspaper that "broke the law."

However, for some reason, the draft law that was to be promulgated in early 2002, has not yet been submitted to the National Assembly for consideration.

In conclusion, free flow of information and the freedom of expression are among the basic rights lacking in the Lao PDR.

I thank you for your attention.