1. Study of Media Development in Laos
2. Expectation and New Hope in the Media Growth
|Media Development in Laos
The history of media in post-colonial Asia is very different from that of the developed western nations. In the Southeast Asian region, in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, the history of the mass media is related to a struggle against colonialism (Atkins 1995). While analysing the Indonesian media, Sen and Hill state: 'during the early years of independence the press was dubbed by President Sukarno a tool of the Revolution, responsible for energising and mobilising public opinion' (2000, p.52). Similarly in Laos the Press and radio developed as partisan political organs, fighting for independence.
In the 1940s, patriotic leaflets directed against the French and Japanese were produced by Kaysone Phomvihane and Sisana Sisane (Viengsavanh 2000). On 15 August 1945 the Japanese surrendered and their troops and administrators left Laos. Seizing this opportunity, on 12 October 1945 the Lao Issara (Lao Freedom) Government was established and declared independence from the French. Leaflets in both Lao and French with the flag of the Lao People's Democratic Republic were distributed in Vientiane, Savannakhet and other cities to motivate the people to fight for independence. Answering a journalist in the Lao Mass Media magazine, Sisana Sisane (1997, p.14) said: 'in August 1945, the patriotic force had an opportunity to publish news bulletins using typewriters and gestetner machines'.
After the defeat of Germany and Japan, the French returned to Laos in 1946. The Lao Issara (Lao Freedom) was unable to fight against the French forces and had to be in exile. Even though the Lao Issara were in exile, they continued publishing news bulletins to motivate the people to fight against colonialism. Sisana Sisane (1997, p.14) states: 'While being unable to fight against the French, the revolutionary side escaped to Thailand and Vietnam and continued publishing their news bulletins irregularly due to lack of paper'.
On 13 August 1950, in the northern part of Laos, the Congress of the Neo Lao
Totane (Lao Resistance Front) established a quarterly two-page newspaper
Issara (Freedom), the voice of the Neo Lao Issara (Lao Freedom) and printed 200 copies using a stone plate (Viengsavanh 2000). The first issue published the declaration and policy of the Neo Lao Issara (the former name of the Pathet Lao), encouraging the people to participate in a struggle for the country's liberation. It also carried the flag of the Lao People's Democratic Republic and pictures of the Lao Resistance Government led by Prince Souphanouvong. People swapped newspapers or passed on news to those who did not have opportunities to read (Duanesavanh 2000).
According to Devillers (1970, pp.41-42), in September 1950 the Patheth Lao
Government settled in Sam Neua (now Huaphanh province, the northern part of
Laos) 'and was able to expand its guerrilla activity along the entire Vietnamese
border, from Phongsaly in the north to the Bolovens Plateau in the south. And,
in the northeast, a liberated zone was taking shape.' The Issara newspaper took
on the responsibility to inform the people about battles for independence.
After a long struggle by the Lao people for independence and the military defeat
of the French in Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam, the independence of Laos was
recognised by the Geneva Agreement on Indochina in 1954. Despite the agreement,
the Americans stepped into Laos to replace the French and Laos became a
battlefield in the second Indochina war. Dommen says that: 'When the bombing
finally halted in 1973, U.S. aircraft had drooped 2,092,900 tons (1,898,260
metric tons) of bombs on Laos, approximately the total tonnage dropped by U.S.
air forces during all of World War II in both the European and Pacific theatres'
(1985, p.90). More than two tonnes of U.S bombs per inhabitant were dropped in
the liberated zone (Pathet Lao zone). At this time the mass media of Pathet Lao
was in full swing carrying the message of liberation and re-unification of the
country. Halpern states: 'the Pathet Lao propagandist knows how to present
himself (sic) as a friend who helps and advises and works with his own hands. He
acts disinterestedly, shows honesty and enthusiasm and knows how to get along
with a minimum of comfort' (1964, p.16).
An important event, an attempt for the re-unification of the country occurred in
1957 when the Pathet Lao and the Vientiane regime (the Royal Lao Government)
signed the Vientiane Agreement, which encouraged the formation of a Coalition
Government, including the Left and the Right (Ackland 1970). The Lao Haksat newspaper was able to operate in Vientiane in support of the Neo Lao Haksat (Pathet Lao) leaders in the national election in May 1958 and was published weekly with a circulation of about 10,000 copies in Lao (LeBar & Suddard 1960). As a result of the national election, the Neo Lao Haksat (the Pathet Lao) and its ally the Santiphab (Peace) party obtained more seats. Dommen says: 'Prince Souphanouvong, the leader of the Pathet Lao received more votes than any candidate' (1985, p.56).
The Neo Lao Haksat (Pathet Lao) dominated in the National Assembly and this made
the CIA-backed right wing unhappy. Therefore, they established the Committee for
the Defence of the National Interest (CDNI) on June 1958 to support Phoui
Sananikone in forming a government in August in 1958 with the exclusion of the
Neo Lao Haksat (Pathet Lao). In addition, they arrested and imprisoned Prince
Souphanouvong and other Neo Lao Haksat leaders, including Khamphai Boupha, the
Director General of the Lao Haksat newspaper, and Sisana Sisane (Duanesavanh
2000). They also banned the Lao Haksat newspaper and closed its printing house
in Vientiane. There were no more negotiations with the Left. 'Just as
significantly, collapse of the First Coalition marked both a victory for the
United States, and shift in power from the Lao National Assembly to the U.S
Embassy' (Stuart-Fox 1997, p.104).
A new twist to the political scene took place, when the police of the Vientiane
regime helped Prince Souphanouvong and other Pathet Lao leaders escape from jail
on 24 May 1960 (Duanesavanh 2000). Leaving the Lao Haksat newspaper and its
printing press in Vientiane, like others, Sisana Sisane escaped from jail and
reached the liberated zone (the Pathet Lao zone), Samnua, Houphanh province and
joined the staff of the Pathet Lao mass media, many of whom did not join the
Coalition Government in Vientiane.
When the newspaper was unable to operate, the radio was only means to inform the
people about revolution and the country liberation. Therefore, under the
supervision of Prince Souk Vongsak and Khamtay Siphandone, the first Pathet Lao
radio station with a capacity of 500 w was established on 13 August 1960, in
Sieng Sua village, Viengsay district, in the northern province of Houaphanh, the
liberated zone. Sisana Sisane became its Director General in 1961 (Duanesavanh
2000). In its early stages, it had one tape recorder, an electric generator and
only six staff, three news reporters and three technicians. In the 1960s, with
support from China and Vietnam, the station improved its capacity from 500 w to
15 Kw and its broadcasts were able to reach the majority of the territory
(Inthasay 2000a). The second Pathet Lao radio was established in 1968 in
Khangkhay, Xieng Khuang province, the liberated zone.
In order to collect, process and supply news to the Pathet Lao radio, the Lao
Haksat newspaper and mouthpieces of the revolutionary movement, Khaosane Pathet
Lao (KPL), the Lao News Agency was established on January 6, 1968 in Viengsay,
northern Houaphanh province, in accordance with a decision of the President of
the Central Neo Lao Haksat (Lao Patriotic Front). Its first director was Sisana
Sisane.Then, it was a small news agency, staffed with only a dozen of reporters
and technicians. To reach the outside world, the KPL also transmitted news in
English through short wave radio.
1975 saw changes in the media, when the country was liberated and the Lao
People's Democratic republic was established. The media has grown rapidly and
continued to participate in the country development and national security
protection. In 1976 there were only four publications with a total circulation
of around 1,665,000 copies (National Statistical Centre. Lao. 2000): news
bulletins of the Lao News Agency (KPL), the daily Siang Pasason, Vientiane Mai, and Kongthap (the Army) newspapers. With a population of 2,886,000, this is approximately one copy per three persons. There were eight radio stations - one National Radio Station in the capital city of Vientiane and seven local ones in Champasack, Savannakhet, Luang Phrabang, Xieng Khuang, Huaphanh, Oudomsay provinces and the Vientiane municipality.
The New Economic Mechanism (NEM) introduced in 1986 accelerated publication and
the print media increased their products rapidly. As the demand for newspapers
and magazines increased, so did circulations. Transportation to provincial
cities and many rural towns became possible and thus helped print media products
from the capital to reach more readers. The number of newspapers, magazines and
news bulletins increased from thirteen in 1985 to fifty three in 2000. In 2000,
the Lao PDR had fifty three publications, including two daily and six weekly
newspapers. Total circulation of newspapers rose from 9,855,000 copies in 1985
to 13,400,000 in 2000, an average of three copies per person (Pasason 11 Oct.
2000, p.1). Total journal circulations increased from 28,000 copies in 1980 to
154,000 in 2000. The number of printing houses grew from twenty seven in 1990 to
thirty four in 2000 and amounts of imported paper, including newsprint,
increased from 1077 tonnes in 1985 to 1245 in 1998 (National Statistical Centre.
Lao. 2000, p.121).
Radio and television networks developed and there has been rapid growth in the
number of radio and television sets. The number of radio stations rose from nine
in 1985 to twenty in 2002 and announcement systems increased from 152 in 1985 to
280 in 1990. In 1983 Laos had only one television station but within nineteen
years this figure has jumped to twenty nine (Mass Media Department. Lao. 2002).
Satellite receiving dishes have been legally used in Laos. Quite recently, the
Ministry of Information and Culture of the Lao PDR co-operated with a Chinese
cable TV company to establish a cable TV in Laos, enabling Lao audiences to
watch more foreign television programmes. Thus today, people with access to
cable TV living in the centre of Vientiane are able to watch up to 30 foreign
television channels, including BBC, CNN, CNBC, Worldnet, ABC Asia Pacific, TV5
(France), DW (Germany), RAI (Italy), MTV, Startsport, Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai,
Cambodian, Korean and other channels.
Today the Lao PDR has three daily newspapers with circulation of 11,950 copies,
the Pasason, the Pathet Lao and the Vientiane Mai, which provide news, information, entertainments, advertisements, sport etc to the people. In addition, there are two foreign language newspapers with circulation of 4,000 copies: Vientiane Times, twice weekly English language newspaper and Le Renouvateur, weekly French language newspaper.
The main news producer for newspapers, the radio and television is the Khaosane Pathet Lao (KPL), the Lao News Agency. It produces daily 324 copies of news bulletins in Lao, 304 in French and 536 in English (Ministry of Information and Culture. Lao. 2000d). Circulations vary in different period, depending on readers' demands. In 1992, the KPL was able to publish 84,360 news bulletins in Lao, 125,666 in English and 84,360 in French. By 1996, news bulletins in Lao had increased slightly to 88,512 copies, in English to 176,592 and in French to 99,124 copies (Lao News Agency KPL 1996, p 3). KPL news in Lao, French and English is now available in http://www.kplnet.net or through other websites,http://www.Vientianetimes.gov.la,http://www.laoembassy.com or http://www.laolink.com .
Expectation and New hope in the Media Growth
People now have greater access to the mass media than before. As the demand for newspapers and magazines increased, so did circulations. Transportation to provincial cities and many rural towns became possible and thus helped print media products from the capital to reach more readers. Radio and television networks developed and there has been rapid growth in the number of radio and television sets since 1985.
Besides the development of local media, there has also been a greater flow from abroad. Foreign newspapers and magazines have appeared in towns where there is reader demand and satellite dishes have appeared not only in Vientiane, but also in remote and mountainous areas. In addition, the public has access to the Internet and Internet caf?s have been established in big cities and also in rural towns. Towards the end of the 1990s the Lao Government started its own news websites (such as http://www.kplnet.net and http://www.vientianetimes.gov.la) to provide readers with news and information.
In fact, in Laos the number of people who are able to access to the Internet is minuscule. They are government officials, media people, business people, intellectuals and university students, who surf for news and information, often from Internet cafes. The Lao Government does not prevent people from accessing foreign media.
The mass media in the period 1986-2000 has grown both in quality and in the variety of texts it carries. Both the Government's own policy of economic reform and the inability to close off the transport of global media products across borders suggest that the Lao media will continue to change to attract more audiences.
By continuing the policy of reform, a goal has been set to reach an economic growth rate of at least seven percent per year during the period 2001-2010. The expected continuing economic growth will help the Government to invest more in all sectors, including the mass media. Investment in the mass media and culture has increased from two billion Kip (1994-1995) to forty nine billion Kip for the 1999-2000 period (National Statistical Centre. Lao. 2000). It is projected that the Government will continue to invest 52.03 billion Kip (US$1.00 = 10,330 Kip on 21/08/02), approximately 2.6 % of State budget in 2000-2001 (State Planning Committee. Lao. 2000). There are plans to improve and upgrade the quality of radio and television broadcasts, and of newspapers and magazines to extend media's reach throughout the whole population (Phommachanh 1997).
Besides government investment, the mass media is also encouraged to obtain income from other sources. Decree No 36 on Increasing the Party Leadership and State Management in the Mass Media in the New Period, which was adopted by the Party Central Political Bureau on 19 June 1993, indicates that media organizations must find ways to earn income to meet their own expenditure. Since then the media have taken new steps, such as selling papers at a profit and accepting advertising as ways to earn income. There is a conviction within the industry that competition between media may also generate future growth.
The current government policy is based on the assumption that the combination of government investment and the earnings of media organizations will accelerate growth in the mass media, increasing their number and improving the quality of radio and television programmes and the Press. In addition, the technical and professional bases of the mass media are expected to be upgraded.
Another factor which will encourage the Lao mass media to change is the national infrastructure. Laos is in the centre of the Indochina peninsula, sharing borders with China in the north, Burma in the northwest, Thailand in the west, Cambodia in the south, and Vietnam in the east. Laos is thus at the cross-roads between countries in the region. The Government has tried to change its status from a land-locked to a land-linked country, by constructing new roads, upgrading roads linking neighbouring countries and building bridges across the Mekong river. Khamtay Siphandone, the President of the Lao PDR urges developing infrastructure, stating: 'in the years to come, we should continue to build, improve and expand some key economic structures such as national highways, highways linking the sub-region and important local roads, bridges, hydropower plants and a national electricity transmission network, modern communication systems…, railways, airports, expansion of airline routes, improvement of water transport and others…'(2001, p.5).
The Government aims to continue this policy and in 2000-2001 it will invest 753. 66 billion Kip (about 37.6 % of State investment) in transportation, a vast amount compared to expenditure in most other sectors (State Planning Committee. Lao. 2000). Route No 13 through the country from Cambodia to China has been improved, Route (Songmek-Wernkham) in Champasak province linking Thailand and Cambodia has been completed and the most strategic Route No 9 to the sea in Vietnam, destroyed during the Indochina war, was rebuilt after the establishment of the Lao PDR in 1975 with the cooperation of the former Soviet Union, Vietnam and the Eastern Block. However, as it was in poor condition, it has been revitalised with Japanese aid and a loan from the Asian Development Bank (ADB) (Vientiane Mai 10 Jul 2000, p.3). A railway link from Vientiane (Laos) to Nong Khai (Thailand) is planned in the near future.
Besides roads linking Laos and neighbouring countries, bridges across the Mekong river have also been constructed. The first built in 1994 with Australian aid links Laos and Thailand. The second was completed on 2 August 2000 in the southern province of Champasack with Japanese aid. A third bridge is on the focus to link Savanakhet in Laos and Mukhdaharn in Thailand. Anderson (1998, p.29) has predicted that Lao-Vietnam trade and transit trade through Laos would grow when the Mekong bridge and road link to Vietnam and Thailand across southern Laos were completed.
Good roads will clearly help the transport of print material. Media organizations located in Vientiane will have more potential to send their products to provinces by road. Foreign print media brought from Thailand, Vietnam and China will also flow more easily into Laos. Television receivers, radio sets, satellite dishes, computers, newsprint and other media goods are currently being imported through Thailand, China and Vietnam, transported mainly by road, over the Friendship Bridge across the Mekong river from Nongkhai (Thailand) to Vientiane (Laos).
Besides transportation, improved telecommunications will also accelerate the mass media in Laos. Since 1990 postal and telecommunications services have improved. An advanced and modern telephone system was installed in 1993 and is a part of the project to expand international radio, television broadcasting and the telecommunications system. It is estimated by 2010 the number of telephone lines will rise to 340,000 (five lines per 100 persons) thus encouraging Internet use, not only in Vientiane, but also in remote towns and mountainous areas. The Lao Star Satellite Project (Lao Star Co, Ltd), a joint venture between the Lao Government and the Asia Broadcasting and Communications Network Plc (ABCN), was established in 1995. The US$ 500 million project is designed to improve the country's telecommunications infrastructure and television broadcasting in the country. The Lao Star Project also expects to operate throughout the Asian Region, setting up a multimedia network and providing other forms of digital data communication (Guide to Doing Business in Laos 1998). Although construction of the ground station for the US $ 500 million project commenced in the 1990s about 14 kilometres from the centre of Vientiane, this project stalled due to the Asian economic crisis in 1997.
Change is particularly evident with regard to access of information from the outside world. Faxes are used widely throughout the country in the private and public sectors and international Direct Dialling (IDD) is available from public telephone booths across the country (Uimonen 1999). Improved telecommunications and other factors have dramatically increased the number of domestic and international calls. In 1976, international calls reached only 148,000 minutes, whereas in 2000 this figure rose to 21,038,000 (National Statistical Centre. Lao. 2000).
Education will also be an important social factor to cause the mass media to change because larger numbers of educated people and a higher literacy rate may lead to increased consumption of media products, especially the print media and the Internet. The Government is encouraging people to study and has established new educational institutions. The number of schools, including primary, secondary and high schools rose from 4,527 in 1976 to 8,033 in 1985 and to 10,696 in 2000 and the number of students increased from 584,700 in 1985 to 1,139,900 in 2000. The number of school teachers rose from 13,100 in 1976 to 23,900 in 1985 and to 39,000 in 2000. Apart from school students, the number of tertiary students increased from 500 in 1976 to 5,200 in 1985 and to 8,800 in 2000 (National Statistical Centre. Lao. 2000). In 2001-2005, upgrading the quality of education will be the Government's main focus. The authorities concerned will concentrate on improving curricula and teaching at all levels, from pre-school to university and especially implementing compulsory education for primary school children. Illiteracy eradication will be conducted with vocational training programmes.
As the result of the government policy to remedy foreign language illiteracy, English has become very popular among the public and the younger generation are being encouraged to learn other foreign languages. As they have opened up the country, the Government also encourages Lao officials to study foreign languages so as to expand cooperation with their foreign counterparts.
Globalisation is a key factor in the transformation of the Lao mass media. Laos is a part of the global society in which 'the unifying forces of modern production, markets, communications and cultural and political modernization interact with many global, regional and local segmentations and differentiations' (Shaw 1994, p.32). The globalisation process has influenced nations throughout the world. International media corporations have encouraged flows of media products world-wide.
Since 1986 when Laos introduced the New Economic Mechanism (NEM) and opened the door to the outside world, media flows and cultural products from abroad have appeared increasingly. The authorities consider they can bring both advantages and disadvantages. Boungnang Vorachit, (now the Prime Minister of Laos) states: 'besides protecting the national culture, we select the best culture in the world to revitalise the Lao culture' (1998, p.4). Khamkhong Kongvongsa, a spokesman of the Ministry of Information and Culture's Mass Media Department said, 'while watching foreign television programmes, the bad comes along with the good' (Magnuson 1998, p.2). It seems to believe that the media flows and foreign cultural products will enrich culture and education in Laos. On the other hand, like many other Asian governments, there are concerns about the effects of some media flows and foreign cultural products, in particular the impact of violent and pornographic content and the capacity of foreign cultures to erode local cultural activities.
Satellite receiving dishes have been legally used in Laos. Quite recently, the Ministry of Information and Culture of the Lao PDR co-operated with a Chinese cable TV company to establish a cable TV in Laos, enabling Lao audiences to watch more foreign television programmes. Even before the coming of cable TV, people living in Vientiane were able to watch some Thai channels, as well as one Vietnamese channel and one French channel, each broadcast from stations built by the Vietnamese and French respectively. Thus today, people with access to cable TV living in the centre of Vientiane are able to watch up to 30 foreign television channels like ABC Asia Pacific, BBC, CNN, HBO, French TV5, German DW, Italian RAI, musical channels MTV, sport channel Starsport and so on.
To date, the number of people who can access the cable TV is small because the company has been in business for only few months. Nevertheless, the number of people who have applied for and are queued up for the cable TV is high, since connection cost is low (1,100,000 Kip = US$ 106.00) compared to cost of a satellite dish at around US$ 600.00) and monthly fees are only 15,000 Kip = US$1.45. Another cable TV owned by a Lao and Thai joint private company is in preparation.
In the 1990s, the Government invested in broadcasting, improving and building new radio and television stations throughout the country. According to the 2000-2005 Information and Culture Plan, the Ministry of Information and Culture (MIC) will provide local media organizations with up-to-date technology, making sure radio and television broadcasts reach most of the country. The MIC will financially support the attempts of several papers to increase number of pages and frequency of publication. For example, the number of pages of the Pasason newspaper will increase from six to eight and foreign language newspapers, the Vientiane Times and Le Renovateur will be published daily.
In the period 2000-2005, the Ministry of Information and Culture will focus on upgrading media content, improving radio and television programmes and the quality of newspapers and magazines. In order to fulfil this task, from the Government's point of view it is important to train media officials in both professional and political matters relating to policy, law and constitution (Ministry of Information and Culture. Lao. 2000b). Training media officials is not a new task. Khamtay Siphandone, the President of the Lao PDR at the Sixth Party Congress in 1996 urged media officials to be properly trained so as to improve the content of the mass media. Foreign aid has also been significant in training Lao media professionals. Many Lao media officials have been sent abroad to learn how to manage media in different societies. The issue of production quality looms large, in particular as the Lao people are exposed to more and more foreign media products
One Lao media industry that has particularly suffered a decline in the context of foreign competition is the film industry, even though Lao cinema was beginning to gain international recognition in the 1990s. For example, Som Ock Southiponh's 1993 documentary Lenetene's Spinning Tops won a production grant of 40,000 French Francs in a contest held by Francophone, the international society of French-speaking nations, and the feature film Bua Deng (Red Lotus) gained a special jury prize at the first Southeast Asian Film Festival in Cambodia in 1997 (Gerow, 1999). This film had been produced in 1987 and the industry had been in decline since the 1980s. Laos has not produced a single feature since 1989.
The mass media remains an important tool to motivate the public, helping the country move from a subsistence economy to a market economy, and helping to attract foreign cooperation and investment. Information, training, and motivating people remain the main strategic task. The Lao People's Revolutionary Party Central Committee promulgated Decree No 36 in 1993 on Increasing Party Leadership and State Management in the Mass Media, in the New Period (Politburo. Lao. 1993). It lays down the main guidelines for the mass media in the period of reform. It claims that the mass media is a sharp tool of the Party and Government, being the tribune for people's expression and the mediating centre between the masses and the Party, and urges leading officials to take on the responsibility to guide and assist the mass media to fulfil its duty correctly and successfully.
Several leading Party and Government officials confirm the main duty of the mass media during the reform policy; for example, Nouhak Phoumsavanh, the former President of the Lao PDR and Advisor to the Lao People's Revolutionary Party states: 'the Party and State have always realised and attached importance to the propagation of information as a sharp means of the Party, an instrument in the struggle for lobbying, presenting the political line and policies and defending the Party line. The mass media at all times are involved in the Party strategy and tactics' (KPL News Bulletin 6 May. 1999, p.1). Khamtay Siphandone, the President of the Lao PDR also confirmed that information and mass media are important vehicles to inform both the domestic and external public about the policies of the Party and Government (1996, p.26).
The Lao Journalists' Association also took steps in urging journalists to serve the country and people, being Party and Government announcers, disseminating policies and motivating the people to implement two strategic tasks: development and the country's security and protection (Lao Mass Media 1997, vol 1, no 1, p. 4).