Fears of Censorship Overshadow US-ASEAN Laos Meeting

Fears of Censorship Overshadow US-ASEAN Laos Meeting
Photo Credit: Reuters / 達志影像
What you need to know

An international human rights organization says reports by foreign media 'will have to be approved by a censor before publication' during the three-day summit in Vientiane.

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The three-day U.S.-ASEAN Summit in Vientiane, Laos, starts today, and with U.S. President Barack Obama becoming the first U.S. president to visit the country, foreign media have been parachuted into Laos to cover the landmark event.

But foreign journalists “have been told that their articles and broadcasts will have to be approved by a censor before publication,” Amnesty International reports, and "escorts" may be appointed to accompany reporters during their stay in Laos.

The human rights organization also says that journalists have said they “may not be allowed to raise questions on certain human rights issues by the authorities.”

Activists have urged Obama to raise concerns of abuse of human rights in the one-party communist nation during the summit, among discussions for further commercial, economic and security partnerships.

“No government should restrict the questions its officials can or cannot be asked, especially at such a high-level summit, when the world will be watching,” says Rafendi Djamin, Amnesty International’s director for South East Asia and the Pacific. "In Laos in particular it’s vital that journalists ask the pressing questions that ordinary people cannot ask because of the fear of reprisals.”

Human rights in Laos

Issues such as illegal land concessions, forced evictions, and disappearances of human rights and democracy activists have been surrounding the country.

Activists Lodkham Thammavong, Somphone Phimmasone, and Soukan Chaithad were arrested on March 5 after returning to Laos from Thailand to renew their passports. The three had taken part in a pro-democracy protest at the Laotian embassy in Bangkok on Dec. 2, 2015, and had criticized the Lao government on the Internet.

The activists appeared on national television on May 25 after being arrested, with Somphone Phimmasone saying, “From now on I will behave well, change my attitude and stop all activities that betray the nation.”

Soukan Chaithad also “stressed their confessions weren't forced by the authorities,”AsiaNews reports.

The three activists’ whereabouts remain unknown.

A prominent member of Lao civil society, Sombath Somphone, also disappeared in December 2012 and was last seen being stopped by police and driven away in a pickup truck.

The Laotian government has been resisting efforts from international organizations, such as the U.N. and the European Parliament, to investigate Sombath Somphone’s case or to discuss it at ASEAN events.

“This environment has only deteriorated since the disappearance of prominent civil society member Sombath Somphone, who was last seen getting into a police vehicle in December 2012,” says Charles Santiago, Malaysian Member of Parliament and Chairperson of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR), in an op-ed published in the Bangkok Post. “This event sent a chilling message to other civil society actors to shut up or suffer the same fate.”

Freedom of speech in Laos

In 2014, the Laotian government enacted an Internet law to regulate how Internet users in the country share or disseminate information online.

The regulations include provisions such as, “information which is not (approved) from official media or media offices/organizations legally cannot be used officially” and “prohibiting the creation of anonymous or pseudonymous social media accounts,” The Diplomat reports.

Laotian authorities also have permission to “collect, check and analyze Internet-based information [disrupting] national stability and social security,” and investigate those suspicious of breaking the law.

The law also asks “Internet service providers and website administrators to ‘terminate access’ and ‘temporarily or permanently block users’ who are found to be violating government decrees and other regulations.”

Edited by J. Michael Cole