The arrest of two European journalists for investigating the situation of the Hmong ethnic minority drew international attention to the lack of freedom in Laos, where the news media take their orders from the authorities. A press law announced in 2001 has still not been adopted.
The 15-year prison sentences received by reporters Thierry Falise and Vincent Reynaud drew the world's attention to the obstacles to foreign press coverage of the plight of Laos' Hmong ethnic minority. An international outcry forced the authorities in Vientiane to release the two journalists but their Laotian guides remained in prison and were allegedly mistreated.
Directly controlled by the information and culture ministry, the Laotian press gave a very one-sided account of the case of the two European journalists. The French-language weekly Le Rénovateur was the only publication to give both sides of the story, and it was immediately censored. The government news agency Khaosan Pathet Lao (KPL) is the only news organisation that is allowed to express a view on sensitive issues.
The party newspaper Paxaxon (People) bills itself as a "revolutionary publication written by the people and for the people which serves the revolution's political action." Journalists are civil servants in the employ of the information and culture ministry. The foreign ministry also has a say in media content. Criticism of the "friendly countries," especially the Vietnamese big brother and Burma, is banned.
To escape the propaganda, many Laotians are in the habit of watching Thai TV stations that can be received in border areas, including the capital. The authorities have never tried to put a stop to this. Similarly, the international radio services that broadcast in Lao, especially Radio Free Asia and Radio France Internationale, have never been jammed. On the other hand, foreign journalists who enter on a press visa are watched closely and are banned from visiting some parts of the country. The authorities control the only Internet operator and block some news websites and sites operated by dissidents based abroad.
Anyone caught "disseminating information that weakens the state" can be given a long prison sentence under the criminal code. Furthermore, anyone who imports a newspaper or magazine "contrary to national culture" can be imprisoned for a year. A proposed press law, announced in 2001, has still not been debated by parliament. It has already been amended several times by the government and the journalists' association. According to some reports, it protects the confidentiality of sources, allows privately-owned news media and sets out the conditions for obtaining a publishing licence.
It was reported in March 2003 that five leaders of the October 1999 democratic movement – including Thongpaseuth Keuakoun, the author of many articles and pamphlets about the situation in Laos and the need for democratic reforms – had been sentenced in 2002 to 20 years in prison for "anti-government activity." They had been secretly detained since their arrest more than four years ago.
Two journalists imprisoned
Two Bangkok-based freelance journalists – Belgian reporter Thierry Falise, a regular contributor to the French weekly L'Express, and French cameraman Vincent Reynaud – were arrested in Xieng Khuang province, northeast of Vientiane, on 4 June 2003, a few days after a Lao militiaman was killed by the Hmong rebels they were travelling with. Falise and Reynaud had entered Laos on tourist visas on 22 May, and at the time of their arrest, they were close to completing a report on rebels groups belonging to the Hmong ethnic minority.
The authorities had never allowed foreign journalists to enter this area, where there are hundreds of survivors of the secret Hmong army formed by the Americans to fight against the communists during the 1964-73 Vietnam war. In his account of their first days in detention, Falise said: "The police gave us a few moments of terror on 8 June when they ordered us to kneel down, handcuffed us and put black hoods over our heads. I though they were going to execute us... But they put us on plane bound for Vientiane and chained us to our seats. When I heard metal clicks behind me, I realised that others had also been arrested." It was their interpreter, Rev. Naw Karl Mua, a US pastor of Hmong origin, and two of their guides.
Falise and Reynaud were held in an immigration centre in Vientiane. It was only on 16 June that French diplomats were finally allowed to visit them. Falise's wife was allowed to see Falise on 18 June. She said he had lost weight. The two journalists were detained separately in small cells, with no natural light and no ventilation. They received adequate food and were able to shower. Reynaud's partner, who was five months pregnant, was finally able to meet with Reynaud for 10 minutes on 23 June.
As international pressure for their release mounted, the official investigation concluded on 26 June. Falise, Reynaud and their guides were supposed to be tried on 27 June in Phonesavanh (north of Vientiane). The trial finally took place on 30 June in the presence of their wives, their support committee representative Roland Neveu, French ambassador Bernard Pottier, their lawyer Thivat Vorachak, a Belgian diplomat and a US representative. The charges against them were not known until a few hours before the start of the trial. The verdict was issued at the end of a two-hour hearing: the two journalists and their American interpreter were sentenced to 15 years in prison for "obstructing the authorities."
They were immediately transferred to Phontong prison in Vientiane. As a result of international pressure, the Laotian ambassador in Belgium announced on 4 July to members of the Falise family and a Reporters Without Borders representative that Falise, Reynaud and the US pastor would be pardoned and released by 13 July at the latest. In the event, they were handed over to their respective ambassadors in Laos on 9 July and went at once to Vientiane airport, where they boarded a flight to Bangkok. On their arrival, Falise and Reynaud thanked the European media for their campaigning and support.
It meanwhile emerged that the two guides, Thao Moua and Tha Char Yang, and their driver, Pa Phue Khang, were sentenced on 30 June to long prison terms: Thao Moua to 12 years, Pa Phue Khang to 15 years and Tha Char Yang – who had escaped and was on the run – to 20 years. Other Laotians had also been arrested, but their names were not known. After arriving in Paris, Falise and Reynaud appealed to the Laotian authorities to free Thao Moua and Pa Phue Khang. They said it was not fair to keep these two members of the Hmong minority in prison when all they had done was to try and make outside world aware of the "humanitarian tragedy which part of the Hmong people is suffering."
Harassment and obstruction
The government called the English-language weekly Vientiane Times to order on 30 May 2003 after it published an Agence France-Presse dispatch about the arrest of Burma's pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. The Laotian press was banned from reporting the arrest.
The French TV channel France 2's news programme, which is relayed daily on the state TV channel Lao 5, was systematically censored in June and July whenever it referred to the imprisonment of European journalists Vincent Reynaud and Thierry Falise. In general, the foreign ministry censors all of the French channel's international news which runs counter to Laotian foreign policy.
The police withdrew all copies of the French-language weekly Le Rénovateur from news stands on 3 July because it had an interview with the lawyer of the imprisoned foreign journalists Reynaud and Falise in which he talked about the trial. A new version of the same issue, with an article reflecting the government's version instead of the interview, was printed the next day.