Open letter to President Choummaly Sayasone
Reporters Without Borders has written to Choummaly Sayasone (photo), who was recently named as head of the Lao People's Revolutionary Party and president of the republic, voicing its concerns about the serious press freedom problems in Laos and urging him to carry out reforms.
People's Democratic Republic of Laos Paris, 23 June 2006 Dear Mr President, Following your appointment as head of the Lao People's Revolutionary Party (PPRL) and the state of Laos, Reporters Without Borders, an international organisation which defends press freedom, wishes to draw your attention to serious and persistent press freedom problems in Laos. We recommend that you undertake some radical reforms which would finally allow the emergence of an independent press and the protection of journalists' rights. We deplore the fact that Laotian journalists are still officials in the information and culture ministry and that, according to our sources, they are forced into self-censorship. Media executives and ministry officials meet several times a month to comment on articles which have appeared and to decide on priority subjects. The media put out news reports in their entirety from the official Khaosan Pathet Lao (KPL) news agency on many subjects. Even though the French-language weekly Le Rénovateur and the English-language Vientiane Times sometimes risk reports on certain socio-economic problems, the majority of the media puts out only news favourable to the party which you head. However the party newspaper, Paxaxon (People), continues to present itself as a “revolutionary publication produced by the people for the people and which serves the political programme of the Revolution”. It seems regrettable too that that the foreign ministry also has a say in the content of the media, imposing a ban on criticising “friendly countries”, particularly Vietnam and Burma. We also urge you to reform the criminal code which currently allows journalists to be sentenced to long prison terms for “spreading news which weakens the state” The law also lays down a one-year prison sentence for anyone who imports a “publication contrary to national culture”. We would hope, Mr President, that the draft press law, announced in 2001, can be amended to be more liberal. According to our information, it has still not been debated in parliament even though it has been amended several times by the government and the Journalists' Association. This draft law protects journalists' sources, sets out the conditions for obtaining a publication licence and would allow the creation of a privately-owned media. It is encouraging but it seems to us essential that there should be a protective framework for the development of a privately-owned and independent press. The Laotian media provides nothing but propaganda and many citizens make a habit of watching Thai television which can be accessed in the border areas, including the capital. We also urge you to allow more pluralism of news and information, by allowing Radio Free Asia and Radio France International, for example, to broadcast their lao-language programmes to Vientiane and other major cities in the country. We also ask you to allow greater freedom of access to your country to foreign reporters. We find it unacceptable that Andrew Perrin, of the US magazine Time based in Bangkok (Thailand), was refused an entry visa for the ASEAN summit in November 2004. This decision appeared to be linked to a report two months earlier about the rape and murder by Laotian soldiers of four Hmong adolescents in Xaisomboune military zone. The information was backed up by an amateur video. We have heard a number of accounts showing that the foreign press is prevented from covering the plight of the Hmong minority and in particular the isolated groups in the jungle which continue to fight against the Vientiane government. Amnesty International has reported that scores of civilians, most of them children, have died since 2003, “through lack of food or as a result of injuries suffered in the conflict”. More generally, we urge you to find a humanitarian solution to the problem of the Hmong groups who are surrounded by the security forces. Elsewhere, we would be grateful if you could pardon two Laotian citizens of Hmong origin, who are still imprisoned in Vientiane for having served as guides, in 2003, to the Belgian journalist Thierry Falise and French cameraman Vincent Reynaud. Thao Moua and Pa Phue Khang were sentenced to prison terms of 12 and 20 years on 30 June 2003 for “obstructing “justice” and “possessing weapons” after a trial, condemned as unfair by Amnesty International. Thierry Falise and Vincent Reynaud have spoken out in defence of their guides who only tried to “make known the humanitarian tragedy experienced by the Hmong people”. Finally, we particularly call on you to pardon Thongpaseuth Keuakoun, author of many articles and pamphlets on the situation in Laos and the need for democratic reform. He was one of the five leaders of the pro-democracy movement in October 1999. In March 2003, we learned that he had been sentenced one year earlier to 20 years in prison for “anti-government activity”. He and his associates have been held at a secret location since his arrest more than six years ago. We hope that your presidency will allow Laos to take the path of reform and respect for freedom of expression. Failing this, we would be likely to add your name to the list of “predators of press freedom” which numbers the main heads of state and armed groups responsible for widespread press freedom violations. Your predecessor, Khamtay Siphandone, was on this list. I trust that you will give our requests your careful consideration. Yours sincerely, Robert Ménard