Government authorities in Laos have ordered the administrators of news outlets carried on Facebook and other social media platforms to register their accounts or face jail time and fines, sources in the communist Southeast Asian country say.
The move comes as Lao residents have increasingly abandoned state-controlled news sources in recent years and are turning more to the internet and social media to get news not previously screened by the communist government’s censors.
In a government order numbered 256 and issued on July 12, the Lao Ministry of Information, Culture, and Tourism cites the need to control the spread of “fake news and disinformation on social media,” according to a July 16 report in the official Vientiane Times.
“[These] have seriously misinformed people and on several occasions caused public panic,” the Times said, adding that Facebook pages set up only as accounts to provide news about the owners’ personal activities will be exempt from the regulation.
Speaking to RFA’s Lao Service this week, Bounthone Chanthalavong Wiese—president of the Germany-based Alliance for Democracy in Laos—called the Ministry’s order “nothing more than a move by the Lao government to further limit freedom of the press for the Lao people.”
If the government feels that certain information may lead to social disorder, it will not allow that news to circulate, she said, pointing for example to the state’s limited coverage of deadly flooding following the collapse of a dam last year in Attapeu province.
The Lao people would never have received timely news of the collapse if not for their access to free online social media platforms, Bounthone said.
‘No problem for now’
Speaking to RFA’s Lao Service on July 18, one Facebook page administrator said that for now he has “no problem” with the requirement to register his site.
“For now, this doesn’t matter as long as the government doesn’t expand its controls under the law or try to obstruct us,” he said. “But if the government really tightens this law, our voice may hardly be heard.”
“If every piece of news has to pass a censorship process, we will not be able to write or share news freely,” he said.
“Any news we share will be true and confirmed,” another page administrator said on July 18, adding that she has already registered her page under the new regulation.
A spokesperson for the Lao Ministry of Information, Culture, and Tourism refused to comment when contacted by RFA on July 18.
In an annual report released in April, Paris-based media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) gave Laos a ranking of 171, close to the bottom of a 180-country survey of press freedoms worldwide, saying that the country’s ruling Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP) “exercises absolute control over the media.”
“Increasingly aware of the restrictions imposed on the official media, Laotians are turning to the Internet and social media,” RSF said in its report.
In a particularly egregious case in the Southeast Asian nation, three Lao workers who posted criticism of their government on Facebook while working in neighboring Thailand were sentenced in a secret trial in 2017 to terms ranging from 12 to 20 years in rulings described as harsh and unjust by rights groups worldwide.
The number of people using social media in Laos is expected to surge this year, as telecom operators compete with each other to offer better services, a report released at the beginning of April by the state-controlled Lao National Internet Centre shows.
The number of the country’s social media users is now projected to reach 2.7 million or 39 percent of the population this year, according to the report.