Standing at the crossroads of mainland Southeast Asia, the People's Democratic Republic of Laos, was for nearly 350 years the heartland of the powerful kingdom of Lane Xang. Since the demise of Lane Xang the Lao territories have often been the subjected to conflicts between powerful neighbours.
Laos was under French colonial rule from 1859 to 1953. Ironically, the French unwittingly promoted the idea of modern nationhood amongst the disparate Lao territories – some of which were handed over to them by the Thais - primarily in an attempt to remove the Lao people from the cultural orbit of neighbouring Siam region (the latter aspired to the creation of a 'Greater Siam' made up of all the Thai-speaking territories). The newfound national identity of the people of Laos contributed to the overthrow of the French colonial rule.
In December 1975 the Lao People's Revolutionary Party (LPRP) was declared the ruling party of the newly-christened People's Democratic Republic of Laos. The LPRP has governed the country since then. Information and communications have been tightly controlled in Laos since the days of French colonial rule. The base for today’s media framework was established during this period by the freedom movement led by the Pathet Lao. First with leaflets and later with clandestine radio, they developed a closely structured media network to fight for independence and later liberation from elite rule.
In 1968, Pathet Lao set up the Lao News Agency (Khaosane Pathet Lao – KPL) to collect, process and supply news to the Pathet Lao radio, which also broadcast to the outside world in English on shortwave. When the Lao Peoples Democratic Republic (Lao PDR) was established media started to grow rapidly in Laos, but under the strict control of the communist government led by Pathet Lao. The main role of the media in the Lao PDR is to serve the people’s interest and to safeguard and develop the country.
The government owns all newspapers and broadcast media, except for one private television station and a few magazines. Print circulation is limited because reading is hampered by the shortage of electricity, by a low literacy rate (according to UNESCO figures adult literacy rate is 63.2 - the lowest in the region) and the fact that significant minority of the population speak their own languages, not all of which have a written form. This also affects radio audiences: although national radio broadcasts can be heard by 70 per cent of the population, they may not understand them, as only two daily programs are carried in the two main minority ethnic languages, Hmong (used by 8 per cent of the population) and Khamu (used by 11 per cent).
The structure of media ownership makes most journalists in Laos public servants, whose salaries are paid by the government. Slandering the state, distorting party policy and spreading false rumours are all criminal offences. A draft law, which may allow private media to exist is yet to be implemented. While free media are not permitted in the country, it has in recent times witnessed the commercialisation of the sector to a certain extent. According to journalist Somsack Pongkhao, assistant editor of Asia News Network (an umbrella network consisting of 20 media houses), said in an interview that some of the media like the only English language daily of the country, Vientiane Times, rely on advertisements rather than government subsidy. Pongkhao added that compared to earlier the Lao media currently enjoy more freedom: At present the media are allowed by the authorities to comment on government policies and their implementation though outright criticism is still not permitted. Nouhak Phoumsavanh, the former President of the Lao PDR and Advisor to the Lao People's Revolutionary Party describes the role of the media as: “The Party and state have always realised and attached importance to the propagation of information as a sharp means of the Party, an instrument in the struggle for lobbying, presenting the political line and policies and defending the Party line. The mass media at all times are involved in the Party strategy and tactics”.
The Department of Mass Media of the Ministry of Information and Culture is responsible for all matters relating to the mass media. It deals with issues ranging from copyright matters affecting videos and films produced by the Ministry to ways and forms of presenting guidelines and policies of the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP) and implementing laws and regulations of the government to approval requests to set up news and video-film businesses in the country. The Ministry office is responsible to the Department of Mass Media for the production of the foreign-language newspapers Le Rénovateur and Vientiane Times. The Ministry office is responsible to the Department of Mass Media for the distribution of all Lao-language newspapers. Ministry of Information and Culture also oversees the operations of the Mass Media Training Centre, which was established in 1980. It functions to train journalists and reporters, particularly those from the provinces. The Centre has benefited from assistance under the UNESCO International Programme for the Development of Communication and has participated in a number of international programmes in collaboration with agencies such as UNESCO, UNICEF, ASEAN and AMIC.
Media Accountability Systems
The Lao socio-political system does not allow for the existence of media accountability systems. The state determines the duty of journalists: Relaying official policy to the people and expressing peoples’ opinion of the authorities. However, of late the media are allowed to report on issues like malpractice, corruption and poor governance and express peoples’ views of the government development programmes even if the latter are critical of the policies. The media are plagued by pressing concerns like lack of journalistic training and professionalism, absence of ethics and the practice of corruption among journalists due to extremely low remuneration.
There are no qualification criteria to be a journalist due to the absence of journalism schools. Recently Lao National University initiated a mass communication degree programme. The Laos Journalist Association trains journalists and often invites experts from overseas for this purpose. Daniel Hirschler, media trainer and country coordinator (Laos) of DW-AKADEMIE/ Deutsche Welle Germany, said that journalism training in the country needs to be addressed from a holistic perspective taking into account these socio-political realities.
While the issue of ethics is required to be incorporated in journalism training and newsroom policies, it cannot be effective in a society where corruption and unethical practices are common. Journalist Somsack Pongkhao said that the country requires a media system that can contribute towards the eradication of poverty and contribute to development. To serve such a purpose journalists require training and also need to be exposed to outside information. Keeping in mind the realistic concerns of the country, statutory and social development are required for the media to be responsible and accountable. Firstly, changes in the infrastructure should be initiated that can help journalists have easy access to information.
The Media Law is also required to be published and made widely available to the people to make them aware of the role of the media. The enforcement of law should be effective and assist in the protection of journalists. Finally, the media sector requires economic progress through reform and competition for better remuneration and benefits for journalists. The community media should be sustained to enhance people’s participation.Back to top