Lao authorities are keeping tabs on social media accounts that publish content critical of the government’s handling of the economy and warning users to change their tone or risk getting shut down.
The inflation rate in Laos hovered around 26% in August after hitting a peak of more than 41% in February. That combined with a devaluation of the kip has made Laotians complain that they can’t eke out a living given the rising costs of gasoline, food and daily necessities.
But an official with the government’s Ministry of Telecommunications and Technology told RFA Lao that those who post complaints online can expect a visit from the authorities.
“Officials are monitoring some Facebook pages and YouTube channels … [and] calling [those who criticize the government] to reeducate and warn them,” the official said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak with the media.
“The police are monitoring those social media channel owners and, if they have [contact] information for them, will meet them immediately,” he said. “We have found that those social media channel owners with misleading information are [mostly] not in Laos, but we still closely continue to monitor them.”
Ruled by the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party since 1975, Laos’ government brooks no political opposition and has imprisoned citizens who post criticism on Facebook about corruption and mismanagement.
In 2014, the government issued a decree prohibiting online criticism of the government and the ruling party, setting out stiff penalties for netizens and internet service providers who violate government controls. The decree also requires netizens to use their real names when setting up social media and other accounts online.
‘Promoting social order’
According to government statistics, some 85% of Laos’ 7.5 million citizens own smartphones – 65% of whom can use them to access the internet. Around 44% regularly use social media platforms including Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube.
On Aug. 3, authorities announced new measures to regulate social media usage with the aim of “promoting social order,” as well as tighter restrictions on social media channels with “misleading or distorted information critical of the government.”
The government has not provided any information about the number of social media users who have been warned or told to shut down their accounts by central or provincial authorities since the announcement.
A resident of the capital Vientiane told RFA that Lao citizens can’t trust state-controlled media to act as a check on government policies or address society’s problems, so they increasingly look to social media for such information.
“Lao people are poor and many of them are living in poverty, but that isn’t something state media will report,” said the resident who, like others interviewed for this report, declined to be named citing fear of reprisal.
“There isn’t any freedom of expression, so state media won’t dare address anything related to [mismanagement by] the state and the party,” the person said.
A resident of Luang Prabang acknowledged that while social media can be useful for accessing information state media won’t address, the information can be much harder to verify.
“Sometimes, it’s fake news or news with wrong or misleading information,” he said.
Criticism can be helpful
But a university professor from the same city said that regardless of the content, an increasing number of Laotians are using social media to express their opinions about the government, which he said is their basic right to do.
He suggested that the government should consider such opinions, rather than threaten those who offer them.
“Without these expressions of opinion from the people, the government might be ignorant of its own mistakes,” he said.
A Vientiane-based official with the United Nations echoed the professor’s comments and advised the Lao government to “adapt to the new media climate.”
“These days, inflation and economic woes are among the hot topics on social media platforms, where there are both supporters [of the government’s policies] and those who disagree,” the official said. “All of them are impacted by these problems and they are right to express their own opinion.”
The official noted that social media users are not only posting their opinions on the government’s policies, but also on issues including mining rights, land grabs, hydropower dam construction, and poverty reduction strategies.
In its latest annual report, Paris-based media watchdog Reporters Without Borders gave Laos a ranking of 160, close to the bottom of a 180-country survey of press freedoms worldwide, saying that the country’s ruling party “exercises absolute control over the media.”
Translated by Phouvong. Edited by Joshua Lipes and Malcolm Foster.