Laos Creates Task Force to Monitor ‘Misuse’ of Social Media

Mixed reactions greet the move, with some in Laos expressing support and others fearing possible arrest.

Lao government authorities have announced the creation of a task force set up to monitor social media use, focusing especially on so-called fake news and postings criticizing the government or ruling communist party, sources in the country say.

The task force will include police officers and members of the government’s Media Department, an official from the Lao Ministry of Public Security told RFA on May 26, five days after the task force was formally announced.

“Our job is to give advice and to lay out the rules and punishments for those who misuse social media,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “We’ll give a warning to first-time offenders, and then fine people for a second offence.”

“For a third offence, we will put them in jail,” he said.

Speaking to RFA, some social media users applauded the move, while others said they were opposed to putting more control in the hands of a one-party communist state that controls all print media, radio, and television.

“I totally agree with the move,” one Facebook user said. “There have been far too many news items online these days that twist the facts and could lead to social disorder and damage to the country,” he said.

Another frequent Facebook user agreed, saying, “Social media in our country should be better regulated, and those who post false information should be prosecuted. There are laws that we must follow.”

The Lao government was forced to set up the task force “because there may have been some groups of people who misuse social media to attack the government,” a woman living in Savannakhet province said, adding, “Under the Lao political system, people like this are monitored and restricted.”

'A useful mirror'

Social media use can hold up a mirror to everything that happens in the country, though, including the misconduct of government officials and workers, one Lao scholar told RFA.

“Facebook is especially popular in Lao because it’s so accessible,” RFA’s source said.

“Some people say that social media use can be toxic, but social media can actually be quite useful if it’s used correctly,” he added.

A young man living in the capital Vientiane who sometimes posts stories and comments on his personal Facebook page voiced concerns for his safety, however, saying he is never sure which story is true and which is not.

“”I’m scared,” he said. “If one of those stories turns out to be fake, I could get in trouble.”

Call for activists' release

Rights groups have called for the release of three young Lao workers who had criticized the government on Facebook while working in Thailand and are now serving long prison terms following a secret trial in April 2017.

Somphone Phimmasone, his girlfriend Lod Thammavong, and Soukane Chaithad disappeared in March 2016 after returning to Laos to renew their passports, and were later shown on television making what appeared to be forced confessions for what they called “the mistake” of protesting their country’s policies.

Somphone was sentenced to a 20-year term and was fined 210 million kip (U.S. $26,000), while Soukane was sentenced to 16 years and was fined 106 million kip (U.S. $13,000), the source said.

Lod was handed a 12-year sentence and was fined 110 million kip (U.S. $14,000).

On May 24, the Lao Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism issued an order to provincial-level departments to register all owners of websites, Facebook pages, and other social media news outlets, while in August 2020, the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications warned social media users against posting content criticizing the country’s government.

Hootsuite, a tech company in Vancouver, Canada, reported two months ago that the number of social media users in Laos had increased from 3.1 million in 2019 to 3.6 million in 2020.

Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Max Avary. Written in English by Richard Finney.


This content originally appeared on Radio Free Asia and was authored by Radio Free Asia.


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