Cablegate: Lao National Assembly Passes New Media Law

DE RUEHVN #0461 2341009
R 211009Z AUG 08



E.O. 12958: N/A


1. (SBU) SUMMARY: The Lao National Assembly (NA) approved a new law
on the roles and responsibilities of the media during its July
session by a vote of 101 to 2. The new media law codifies the
powers of the Ministry of Information and Culture's Mass Media
Department. It remains to be seen whether the law will enhance
freedoms of the press or further control an already very restricted
media. Over time, it will become clear whether the various new laws
passed by the NA are part of Laos' movement towards the rule of law
or perhaps just an expanded approach to "rule by law".

2. (U) On July 25, 2008, the Lao National Assembly approved a law on
the roles and responsibilities of the media in Laos. Drafting of
the new media law began in 1995. A first draft of the law presented
to the government for approval in 2000 was rejected for a "lack of
comprehensiveness." We understand veteran academics,
representatives of the mass media, legal technical officials, and
interested Government of Laos (GOL) officials helped revise the
draft during the past 13 years.

3. (SBU) The new media law provides a legal framework to implement
Resolution 36 of the Party Politburo, which covers management of the
press. The resolution states that the role and function of the Lao
media are to contribute to the country's strategy of national
defense and development. Currently the government, which owns and
controls most domestic print and electronic media, severely
restricts political speech and public criticism deemed harmful to
the state's reputation. Accordingly, local news closely reflects
government policy. There are a few privately-owned media sources in
Laos belonging to well-connected families, often relatives of
government officials who manage the formal mass media. These are
generally limited to covering carefully selected society items and
other "non-threatening" topics.

4. (U) According to officials, the new media law is intended to
serve simultaneously as a reference for the Lao people to ensure
their "right of free expression" and as a tool for the Party to
effectively "supervise and manage" the media. Ministry of
Information and Culture Mass Media Department Director General Mr.
Vanthong Phonchanhuang stated very clearly: "Media is an important
tool and vehicle of the Party."

5. (SBU) The eleven chapters and 66 articles of the media law cover
general legislation, features of the media, rights of Lao people in
the media, media work, organization and human resources of the
media, movement of media, "prohibitions," management and inspection,
policies for contributors, and penalties for violations-including
disciplinary sanctions if journalists fail to act in accordance with
the law. One new element is that the law gives the green light for
the private sector, domestic and international, to invest in media
in Laos. Apparently, foreign money is welcome, but even media
companies with foreign investment would have to avoid harming the
reputation of the country.

6. (U) The debate on the media law was broadcast live on Lao
national television. One issue under discussion was the requirement
for media agencies to obtain permission from the Mass Media
Department before adding extra pages to publications. Some NA
members argued this restriction limited the independence of the
media, but the majority agreed it was a management issue that would
not create obstacles for media development. Another topic of debate
was the appropriate minimum age (21 or 25) of a media agency's head
official and deputy head official. Some members voiced the desire
for state media agencies to take steps towards financial
independence. The common practice of journalists asking for payment
for coverage of stories was also discussed.

7. (SBU) Comment: The lengthy draft period and lack of vigorous,
substantive NA debate is characteristic of the Lao legislative
process. When the President issues the promulgation notice, the
government will also release the implementing regulations which will
supply the actual teeth of the law and tell us much more about the
future direction of the media in Laos. At this point the impact of
the new media law remains unclear, though various laws being
considered by the NA are indicative of the GOL's effort to move
towards becoming a nation with a more complete code of laws. We
will be watching to see how this new law impacts the press in Laos,
but it is clear that it will not fundamentally change the nature of
the state-controlled media. End Comment.


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