MEDIA, COMMUNICATIONS, FILM AND THE INTERNET IN LAOS

MEDIA AND FILM IN LAOS

Being a communist state, the Laotian government maintains a strict control over the media. The government owns all newspapers and broadcast media. Khaosan Pathet Lao (KPL) is the official news agency, which supplies information to the other media houses, according to the government regulations. [Source: Singapore Management University]

Communist Laos does not allow any foreign journalists to live in the country, all local reporters are employed by the government and all media is state-owned. All foreign journalists are supposed to accompanied by foreign ministry minders.

Laos’ media has expanded in recent years. There are around 24 regularly printed newspapers, all government affiliated. Broadcasting outlets have expanded, but all 32 television stations and 44 radio stations are government run. Foreign television and radio services, such as Voice of America and Radio Free Asia, broadcast in Laos without disruption. Laotians enjoy comparatively uncontrolled access to the Internet compared to China and Vietnam. Internet use is growing rapidly despite the high cost of connection and some language barriers.[Source: Alastair Carthew and Simon Winkelmann, Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, Media Programme Asia <>]

In collaboration with international donors, the country passed a new press law in 2008, but it has had little practical effect on conditions for journalists and the Criminal Code still allows for jailing journalists up to a year for reporting news that “weaken the state.” The law was seen by outside observers as having vague and contradictory provisions dealing with media rights and responsibilities. <>

The media law passed by the Lao National Assembly consists of 10 chapters containing 64 articles that determine the roles, responsibilities, duties and principles of foreign and domestic media. However, the media remains under tight government control. Media are appointed mostly from within the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP) and publications must be approved by the Ministry of Information and Culture. <>

Laos was 165th on the world press freedom index 2012. There is a great deal of censorship and self-censorship in Laos. The media is widely censored. In 2001 the government announced that “reporting must be responsive to the party’s long-term target to bring the country out of poverty.” Physical attacks and extralegal intimidation aimed at journalists in Laos are rare, as reporters avoid covering politically sensitive topics. Foreign journalists face significant barriers in establishing a permanent presence in the country. In November, the 9th Asia-Europe Summit (ASEM) was held in Laos, and the government built a special media centre for the occasion.

There are virtually no movie theaters in Laos. There used to be. Most people watch pirated Hollywood and Hong Kong films on video or DVD at home or in video halls. The book Air America by Christopher Robbins was made into a film partly based in Laos staring Mel Gibson.

Thomas Fuller wrote in the New York Times, “Khamphao and his neighbors all have $100 Chinese-made television sets connected to Chinese-made satellite dishes and decoders, causing both joy and occasional tension among family members sitting on the bare concrete or dirt floors of their living rooms. "I like watching the news," Khamphao said. "My children love to watch movies." A two-hour interview with Khamphao was interrupted twice: once when his buffalo in the adjoining field gave birth to a healthy calf and a second time when a movie channel was showing "Lost in Translation," and the actor Bill Murray sang an off-key rendition of Brian Ferry's "More Than This." Khamphao's children, whose daily lives are almost exclusively confined to the mountain village, have picked up the Thai language from television and sing along to commercials broadcast from neighboring Thailand. [Source: Thomas Fuller, New York Times, December 26, 2007 ==]

Arrest of Foreigners in Laos

In April 1999, two Laos-born Hmong-Americans disappeared near the Thai-Laos border. One of them, Hua Ly, fought with the CIA-backed forces during the Vietnam War. The other, Michael Veng, was the son of Hmong resistance leader Vang Pao. As of 2001 nothing had been heard from them. The U.S. indicated its displeasure by delaying the appointment of an ambassador to Vientiane. [Source: The Economist, April 26, 2001]

Associated Press reported: The Lao Veterans of America called on the Laotian government to provide any information about two missing Laotian-Americans, Michael Vang of Fresno, Calif., and Houa Ly of Appleton, Wis Ly, who fought with CIA-backed forces in Laos during the Vietnam War, and Vang disappeared in April 1999 while on vacation. They were last seen boarding a boat on the Mekong River that divides Thailand and Laos. Some Laotian groups and some members of Congress say the Laotian government kidnapped, imprisoned and possibly killed the men. Laotian officials say they know nothing of their whereabouts. [Source: Frederic J. Frommer, Associated Press, February 24, 2000]

In June 2003, two Europeans and an American of Laotian origin—French cameraman Vincent Reynaud, Belgian photojournalist Thierry Falise and Naw Karl Mua, an ethnic Hmong American and Lutheran pastor in Minnesota—were arrested in connection with killing Laotian security forces in northern Laos and sentenced to 15 years for obstructing police work and illegally possessing a gun and explosives. Three Hmong rebels were also arrested and tried with the foreigners.

The three foreigners were reportedly seized after they emerged from a jungle where they went to meet the leader of a group of ethnic Hmong fighters that had earlier been accused of killing a guard on a night patrol. Press advocacy groups said they were being punished for reporting on the Hmong rebels. They were ultimately offered release if they accepted their guilt and refused their right to appeal.

Other foreigners have been arrested in Laos. A 50-year-old Australian businessman was detained for embezzlement. An Australian couple from Brisbane was detained for 10 months. Five European pro-democracy activists who started a small protest were deported rather imprisoned. The Europeans—three Italians, a Russian and a Belgian—were members of the Italy-based Transnational Radical Party.

Freedom of Speech and Press in Laos

The law provides for freedom of speech and of the press; however, in practice the government severely restricted political speech and writing and prohibited most public criticism that it deemed harmful to its reputation. The law forbids slandering the state, distorting party or state policies, inciting disorder, or propagating information or opinions that weaken the state. [Source: 2010 Human Rights Report: Laos, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, U.S. State Department, April 8, 2011 ^^]

Authorities prohibited the dissemination of materials deemed by the Ministry of Information and Culture to be indecent, subversive of "national culture," or politically sensitive. Any person found guilty of importing a publication considered offensive to the national culture faced a fine or imprisonment up to one year.^^

The state owned and controlled most domestic print and electronic media. Local news in all media reflected government policy. Although domestic television and radio broadcasts were closely controlled, the government did not interfere with broadcasts from abroad. Many citizens routinely watched Thai television or listened to Thai radio, including news broadcasts from international news sources. Citizens had 24-hour access to international stations via satellite and cable television. The government required registration of receiving satellite dishes and payment of a one-time licensing fee, largely as a revenue-generating measure, but otherwise made no effort to restrict use.^^

The government permitted the publication of several privately owned periodicals of a nonpolitical nature, including those specializing in business, society, and trade. While officials did not review in advance all articles in these periodicals, they reviewed them after publication and could penalize periodicals whose articles did not meet government approval. A few foreign newspapers and magazines were available through private outlets that had government permission to sell them.^^

The government required foreign journalists to apply for special visas and restricted their activities. Authorities did not allow journalists free access to information sources, but often allowed them to travel without official escorts. When escorts were required, they reportedly were at journalists' expense.^^

Freedom of the Press 2012

Press freedom in Laos remains highly restricted. Despite advances in telecommunications infrastructure, government control of all print and broadcast news prevents the development of a vibrant, independent press. Article 44 of the 1991 constitution guarantees freedom of the press, and the government has demonstrated some willingness to enact positive legislation related to expression and association. In collaboration with international donors, the country passed a new press law in 2008, but it had little practical effect on conditions for journalists. Under the criminal code, individuals may be jailed for up to one year for reporting news that “weakens the state” or importing a publication that is “contrary to national culture.” Defamation and misinformation are criminal offenses, carrying lengthy prison terms and even the possibility of execution. However, due to high levels of official censorship and self-censorship, legal cases against media personnel are extremely rare. [Source: Freedom House <+>]

The country’s media remain under the tight control of the ruling Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP). Media personnel are appointed mostly from within the LPRP, and publications must be approved by the Ministry of Information and Culture. Journalists write primarily about uncontroversial topics, though stories on social issues that were never previously broached have begun to appear in newspapers. Physical attacks and extralegal intimidation aimed at journalists are rare, as reporters avoid covering politically sensitive topics. Foreign journalists face significant barriers in establishing a permanent presence in the country, but are generally permitted to enter and travel to cover specific stories. The government continues to limit journalists’ access to the 4,000 Hmong refugees who were forcibly repatriated from Thailand in 2009. <+>

Laos Media in the Mid-2000s

In 2004, AFP reported: “Foreign media in Laos for the ASEAN summit should expose rights abuses in the country, an international watchdog says. Reporters Without Borders is calling for the release of a jailed journalist and two guides. "Criticism of the 'friendly countries,' especially the Vietnamese big brother and Burma (Myanmar), is banned," the Paris-based group said. "And anyone caught 'disseminating information that weakens the state' can be given a long prison sentence under the criminal code." [Source: AFP, November 27, 2004]

Reporters Without Borders also says that the Government has tried to limit access to foreign radio broadcasts ahead of the summit. "In the two months leading up to the summit, Interior Ministry agents have swooped on thousands of homes to check if the occupants owned short-wave radios that would allow them to listen to Laos-language programs on foreign radio stations," it said.

It again urges the Laotian regime to free two men from the ethnic Hmong minority, who were jailed last year after they helped two European reporters meet with Hmong rebels living in the jungle in the north of the country."For years, the foreign press has been prevented from covering this minority...," Reporters Without Borders said. "The press was prevented from investigating claims in 2004, shown on an amateur video, that Laotian soldiers raped and murdered four young Hmong in the Xaisomboune military zone."

The group also called for the release of Thongpaseuth Keuakoun, author of numerous articles and pamphlets about the situation in Laos and the need for democratic reforms. He was held secretly after his arrest in 1999 and sentenced in 2002 to 20 years in prison for "anti-government activities".

The Lao News Agency churns out press releases on official visits by Laotian leaders to Vietnam, North Korea and Myanmar. A typical release: During a five-day state visit to New Delhi in 2008, the service reported that the president and the Indian prime minster discussed "a wide range of subjects of bilateral interest, and issues of regional and international importance."

History of Laos Media

Information and communication have been tightly controlled in Laos since the days of French colonialism. During the years of revolutionary struggle against the RLG, the LPRP relied heavily upon radiobroadcasts in the Lao and Hmong languages. Starting in 1960, with technical assistance from North Vietnam, these radiobroadcasts, lasting four hours a day, reached a largely illiterate and mountain-dwelling audience. Press operations, oriented to the towns of the Mekong Valley, were conducted secretly, if at all, by the clandestine Pathet Lao. Radiobroadcasters never mentioned the official name of the party until a few months before the seizure of power in December 1975. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]

Given such a heritage of party control, it is not surprising that the postrevolutionary operation of the mass media is a tightly controlled party monopoly without private participation. The joint party-government organization of the media is reflected in the Ministry of Information and Culture and the State Board of News Agency, Newspaper, Radio, and Television. The party maintains the more narrowly focused Propaganda and Training Committee whose chairman is also the head of the state board. The overall goal of the press is stated as making the mass media into a link among the party, the state, and the masses. *

In mid-1994 the official media consisted of the party-sponsored daily newspaper, Xieng Pasason (The Voice of the People) [Vientiane], in Lao language only. Khaosan Pathet Lao (Lao News Agency), a news service of the Committee of Information, Press, Radio and Television Broadcasting, distributes daily bulletins in Lao, English, and French. The National Radio of Laos, the stateowned radio service, has a national network and seven regional stations that broadcast in Lao and tribal languages. The four government-owned Laotian television stations broadcast daily for a few hours each. Regional stations broadcast in Lao and in tribal languages. *

Other media are specialized for particular audiences. For example, the daily Vientiane Mai (Vientiane News), covers local matters of significance to the party. The journal Sangkhom Thoulakit (Society and Business), in Lao, targets readers interested in Vientiane business and society. A theoretical quarterly, Aloun Mai (New Dawn), established in 1985, appeared with some regularity to disseminate major speeches by party leaders, among other official pronouncements. An arts and letters monthly, Vannasin, is surviving, but the print output of various mass organizations such as the People's Revolutionary Youth Union's Noum Lao (Lao Youth), a fortnightly journal, or those of the Federation of Women Union's is only intermittent. Lao Dong (Labor) is the fortnightly journal of the Federation of Trade Unions. *

Laotian media output is sporadic and relatively insignificant compared with the impressions made by Thai television, radio, and commercials, and the daily newspapers carried into Vientiane by international travelers. Given the proximity of Thai radio and television, Thailand remains both an open window to a different economic system and provides a perspective on the news. Further, outside information and culture have proven to be too pervasive to be worth eradicating by surveillance or jamming. *

So far as publishing is concerned, the Ministry of Information and Culture held a seminar in 1992, which reviewed its activities over the previous sixteen years and worked out a "plan of action" for the coming period with "provisional regulations on publication, printing, and distribution in the Lao PDR." Reinforcement of this type of intellectual planning is achieved through periodic conferences with delegations from the official news agencies of Vietnam and Cambodia, and through visits to China. A delegation of Thai writers was also entertained. *

Radio and Television in Laos

Broadcast media: 6 TV stations operating out of Vientiane - 3 government-operated and the others commercial; 17 provincial stations operating with nearly all programming relayed via satellite from the government-operated stations in Vientiane; Chinese and Vietnamese programming relayed via satellite from Lao National TV; broadcasts available from stations in Thailand and Vietnam in border areas; multi-channel satellite and cable TV systems provide access to a wide range of foreign stations; state-controlled radio with state-operated Lao National Radio (LNR) broadcasting on 5 frequencies - 1 AM, 1 SW, and 3 FM; LNR's AM and FM programs are relayed via satellite constituting a large part of the programming schedules of the provincial radio stations; Thai radio broadcasts available in border areas and transmissions of multiple international broadcasters are also accessible (2012). [Source: CIA World Factbook]

The 1990s saw a rapid growth of the number of television and radio sets. 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. There are 7 television broadcast stations and 52,000 television receivers. Lao National TV (TVNL) is the state broadcaster; Laos Television 3 a joint venture with a Thai company. The main radio station is Lao National Radio. [Source: Singapore Management University]

The number of media outlets has increased in recent years. The government is eager to boost Laos’s information and communication technology capabilities, and advancements in this sector have resulted in an increase in television and radio stations. All 32 television stations and 44 radio stations are government run, though companies are increasingly permitted to buy airtime and run privately produced content. Much of the investment in the broadcast infrastructure has been provided by China and Vietnam. A few community radio programs, covering mostly local interest stories, have sprung up with the help of international development organizations. Foreign television and radio services, such as Voice of America and Radio Free Asia, broadcast in Laos without disruptions. A number of citizens watch Thai television and radio, and wealthier individuals have access to satellite television. [Source: Freedom House]

For a long time all that was available in Laos were two state-run television stations that didn't offer much. Lao National Television (LNT) offered two channels of programming that could be picked up in the Mekong Valley and broadcast only in the evenings from 7:00pm to 11:00pm. For a long time there was only one radio station: Lao National Radio (LNR).

Thai television programs are very popular. Many Laotians can pick up Thai television stations. Lao-dubbed versions of American situation-comedies and Warner Brother cartoons are available on the Lao government channels.

In recent years, money from the tourist trade and other means has provided enough money for people in the Vientiane area and even in remote rural areas to purchase televisions, satellite dishes and DVD machines, allowing them to while away the hours watching Thai games shows and soap operas and MTV and CNN. One clothes vendor told Reuters he only does three things every day: "I just work, sleep and watch television."

Satellite dishes are strictly regulated in Myanmar and Vietnam but not in Laos. No permits are needed for a satellite dish. People in the country can buy satellite dishes for as little as $200. All they need is a power source (sometimes a car battery) and they are in business. The dishes are manufactured in China and imported through Thailand. Most of the owners are villages chiefs and merchants. In the countryside there are lots of satellite dishes but many of them are not hooked up.

Subic Bay Satellite sells transmission time on two old Russian satellites positioned over Tonga to state television companies in Laos, Cambodia and Papua New Guinea.

Laos Hopes to Launch Communications Satellite by 2015

In July 2012, the Vientiane Times reported: “A Chinese investor and the Lao government have inked a joint-venture agreement to develop a Lao satellite project, a minister said. A master agreement for the US$960 million project, signed last week, is 70 per cent funded by the investor and 30 per cent funded by the Lao government. "We already signed the master agreement, and discussions on the details of project development will be our next step," Minister of Post and Telecommunications Hiem Phommachanh told the Vientiane Times yesterday. [Source: Vientiane Times/ANN, July 21, 2012 ::::]

“The government hopes to launch the satellite by 2015 to mark the 40th anniversary of the founding of the Lao People's Democratic Republic. The Lao government owns the rights to one fully coordinated BSS Orbital Slot at the location 126 degrees east, where the project will be developed. The $960 million will also cover the construction cost of operation and research facilities. Vientiane will calculate the value of orbit ownership rights for its contribution to the share, Hiem said. ::::

The project will provide 36 transponders for TV signals, which can provide services to many countries. The Lao satellite project has been in the making for some time. Previously, Laos had joint-ventured with Thai investors to launch a satellite into this orbit, but the Thai investor's financial troubles led to its collapse. Later, the government inked a cooperation agreement with US investors but that too failed due to the same problem, Hiem said. He said Laos also plans to place a satellite in the 128.5 degree east orbit, and the government intends to ask Beijing for a loan to realise the $258 million project. The loan will be used to purchase the satellite and pay the launch costs. It will provide 22 transponders for both television and telephone signal transmission. The Lao government signed an agreement with a Chinese company in December to develop the 128.5 degree project. ::::

In September 2009, AFP reported: “China will build and launch a communications satellite for Laos, Chinese media reported, following similar ventures for Nigeria and Venezuela. China would also build a satellite control centre for Laos, according to an agreement signed Friday, reports said, citing an official at the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT). The Dongfang Hong (The East is Red) model satellite would be launched by a Long March rocket. No date was given for the launch. In 2007, China for the first time launched a Chinese-made satellite for a foreign country, Nigeria. However, the 257-million-dollar NigComSat-1 satellite -- which was launched to provide phone, broadband Internet and broadcasting services to rural Africa -- failed after a year due to technical problems. [Source: AFP, September 26, 2009]

Newspapers in Laos

There are around 24 regularly printed newspapers, all government affiliated. Newspaper circulation figures remain extremely low due to low literacy rates and an insufficient distribution infrastructure outside the capital, Vientiane. [Source: Freedom House]

Vientiane Times is Laos' first English newspaper, launched is April 1994 as a weekly tabloid, by the Lao People's Democratic Republic. By 1996, it expanded to Monday to Friday, and Saturday edition was added in 2007. Vientiane Times newspaper covers a wide range of domestic and international news and provides information reflecting government policy and socio-economic development. It is part of the Lao Press in Foreign Languages, a specialised agency of the Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism. Le Renovateur is the only Laotian French newspaper (also under KPL), started in 1988, and is also part of the Lao Press in Foreign Languages. It is published weekly, and covers similar topics to the Vientiane Times. Vientiane Mai is a state-run daily and Pasaxon the Lao People's Revolutionary Party’s monthly publication. [Source: Singapore Management University]

The main Lao-language newspaper, Pasason (The People ) is primarily a government mouthpiece and is filled mainly with propaganda. A headline in the government newsaper the Vientiane Times read: “The truth is out there.....” and stopped. The artcile was equally unclear. Thai newspapers, books and magazines are widely read. The Bangkok Post however is difficult to get and technically is available through subscription only.

Internet in Laos

Internet country code: .la; Internet hosts: 1,532 (2012), country comparison to the world: 166 Internet users: 300,000 (2009). [Source: CIA World Factbook]

Internet access is available in many hotels, guesthouses, and restaurants in big cities. Although internet cafe is often available in provincial capitals, it is difficult to connect internet in rural areas. Internet cafes are common in most major towns and in places frequently visited by tourists. Most Internet cafes in major towns such as Vientiane and Luang Prabang have ADSL, WiFi or broadband connections. Most of them charge around 4,000-6,000kip an hour. VoIP services such as Skype, Viper etc are not blocked in Laos; data charges apply unless you have an unlimited data package, free WiFi or use low-cost internet shops.

About 9 percent of the population accessed the internet in 2011, and Lao-language content, though minimal, is growing. The state controls all internet service providers, and there are some reports that the government sporadically blocks web activity. The government’s technical ability to monitor the internet is limited, though concerns remain that Laos is looking to adopt the censorship policies and technologies of its neighbors, Vietnam and China. [Source: Freedom House 2012]

Laotians enjoy comparatively uncontrolled access to the Internet compared to China and Vietnam. Internet use is growing rapidly despite the high cost of connection and some language barriers. It had 308,000 Internet users at December, 2011 and 204,000 Facebook users at March, 2012. [Source: Alastair Carthew and Simon Winkelmann, Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, Media Programme Asia]

Internet penetration is located exclusively in urban areas, the majority in Vientiane and Luang Prabang. Since 2000, Laos has seen an increase of 8790 percent in internet users. Internet access in Laos is very PC heavy, with 73 percent of users using only computers to access it. Mobile only is currently a much smaller market, as only 4 percent of users are strictly limited to their phones. Overall 27 percent of users have access through their mobile devices, a number which will grow as mobile networks increase within Laos. On top of this, 36 percent of users have purchased a product online, using predominantly credit cards and money transfers as payment. [Source: Singapore Management University +++]

Internet Freedom in Laos

The government controlled all domestic Internet servers and retained the ability to block access to Internet sites it deemed pornographic or critical of government institutions and policies. The Lao National Internet Committee under the Prime Minister's Office administered the Internet system. The government sporadically monitored Internet usage. [Source: 2010 Human Rights Report: Laos, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, U.S. State Department, April 8, 2011 ^^]

The Prime Minister's Office required all Internet service providers to submit quarterly reports and link their gateways to facilitate monitoring, but the government's enforcement ability appeared limited. The government did not block major foreign news sources, nor did it have the capability to monitor blogging or the establishment of new Web sites. There were no reports of government prosecution of persons for the expression of political, religious, or dissenting views via the Internet. There were no reports of government attempts to collect personally identifiable information of a person in connection with that person’s peaceful expression of political, religious, or ideological opinion or belief.^^

Many citizens used the services of a growing number of Internet cafes for private correspondence rather than personal computers. Very few homes had Internet access; most non-business users depended on Internet cafes located chiefly in the larger urban areas. The International Telecommunication Union reported that Internet users numbered approximately 5 percent of the country's inhabitants in 2009.^^

Popular Websites in Laos

Facebook is by far the most popular website in Laos, with over 25 percent of internet users having an active Facebook account. Despite this penetration, only 2 percent of the total population of Laos maintains a profile. Of Facebook users, 72 percent are between the ages of 18-34, with 11,000 new users per month. The young population of Laos makes this the key demographic to target, as they are quickly bringing Laos into the present. Facebook also numbers 1 through 3 on the most searched terms in Laos (www.facebook.com, facebook, facebook.com respectively) with growth rates of 250 percent, 110 percent and 80 percent. [Source: Singapore Management University +++]

The top twitter channels are also the ones maintained by the Laos Newswire and Vientiane Times. Beerlao Music Zone: Facebook page of BeerLao, and central to the musical events they plan as promotions. Laos Travel: Community page for travellers, tourists and those living in Laos. LaoBuddy.com is a site for Lao citizen abroad, based out of United States. Has more activity than other Laos websites despite, which really demonstrates the lack of internet access within Laos. LaoBumpkin is a blog about life in Laos, including travelling, politics, and news. Offers insight into local customs, indigenous life, and national news. +++

Laofriends is a community site for people to meet and interact with Lao citizens. It offers penpals, friendships, and possible relationships. This is very quickly linked to sister sites Laogirls.com and Laobabes.com, which are very targetted towards western travellers, and seek to promote Lao girls to foreigners. Although this is essentially a mail order bride type website, it is actually one of the few websites originating from Laos that is not Beerlao or LaosAir. It is also the first line of sites users find when searching for Laos websites. +++

Sounay Phothisane’s Museum: The only visible scholarly blogger in Laos, Sounay is a teacher at Mahasarakham Business School in Laos. He maintains a twitter account @Aodto, and has created websites for entities like Vientiane High School, and VientianeHour.com, a lifestyle website in Laotic. His main interests are business and developmental politics relating to Laos. +++

Social Media in Laos

Social media in Laos is yet in the infant stage, where users make use of social platforms to share personal stories and stay in touch with each other. Due to the low internet penetration, corporations are yet to optimize social media from a commercial aspect. The brands which have a maximum presence on Facebook are Pioneer with 128,000 users and Nokia Centro América y Caribe with 16,563 users. However, neither is dedicated solely to Laos. +++

See Facebook Above

Blogger Sounay says, “Social media has become a platform for Lao people especially teenagers to express themselves and to be heard. Facebook, Twitter and Blogger are intermediaries for them to personally express on online society. These platforms have become essential tools for them to show their talents, personality, behaviors which are rarely shown on offline community.” However, this is limited to urban area of Laos. Those living in the rural areas are only recent adopters of Facebook and use it primarily on their mobile phones to connect to their friends. +++

Sounay told a social media conference at Jakarta: “Social media in Laos has been increasingly changing in a constant rate due to its fast growing economy and IT infrastructure expansion. Social media is basically used for entertainment and communication with their friends, family and love ones. Nearly eighty percent of the population working in agricultural sector and education is hardly accessed and people are pretty not sophisticated in using the internet, in another words, they use social media (internet) in comfortable ways by socializing and entertaining but not for complicated or flexible stuff. For example, on a daily basis, Lao people use the internet for email, news, visiting social networking sites, viewing photos and videos. Gaming is not a significant preference in Laos. Browsing for merchandise/services is only a second level daily preference. Buying and trading online, job hunting, and banking rank as some of the least practiced activities on the internet. This shows that the internet in Laos is primarily a social rather than a business of transactional tool.” +++

Question to Simon Kemp, MD, WeAreSocial: 1. What are your views on the future (next 5 years) of social media in Laos? I think things will pick up rapidly in Laos in the next 2-3 years thanks to mobile data, particularly driven by social media. 2) We realised that there were no Twitter stats available for Laos, why has the nation not adopted the concept of microblogging? Lack of stats doesn't mean lack of activity. Where mobile dominates web access, stats are harder to find due to capture method. 3) Would lack of data imply that this market is yet untapped by social media researchers? Yes, that's not unreasonable. It's not a big ad market, so there's not sufficient commercial incentive to study it yet. 4) Why does Laos local SNS involves mainly dating sites and not the type which citizens can connect on a regular basis? It is perhaps because only a small percentage of the population has access, so everyday chat isn't workable ). While the government claims not to control the internet in Laos, it controls all other media, do you think there is a censorship which the government in refusing to reveal? We must distinguish between 'censorship' and monitoring; most governments are exploring how to protect people in online communities 6) Will the communist nature of the state impact the way the government regulates Social Media? I'd imagine they'd need to keep a close eye on how sudden, large-scale access to the 'outside' world impacted Lao culture. +++

Telephones in Laos

Telephones - main lines in use: 107,600 (2011). country comparison to the world: 143; Telephones - mobile cellular: 5.481 million (2011), country comparison to the world: 101. [Source:CIA World Factbook **]

Telephone system: general assessment: service to general public is improving; the government relies on a radiotelephone network to communicate with remote areas. Domestic: 4 service providers with mobile cellular usage growing very rapidly. International: country code - 856; satellite earth station - 1 Intersputnik (Indian Ocean region) and a second to be developed by China (2012). **

Tholakham Lao (Lao Telecom) is the telephone company in Laos. Service is pretty awful and few people have phones. Local calls are best made from a hotel or guesthouse with the help of a Laotian person or from a post office, phone office, home, or business. Many cities and towns have kiosks and curbside desks were local and international calls can be made. Cell phones are becoming more widespread in Laos. They can be rented in some places. In rural areas the cell phone reception is often only good if you climb a hill. In remote areas calls are often made through satellite phones or radio relay systems.

Cell Phones and Smart Phones in Laos

Telephones - mobile cellular: 5.481 million (2011), country comparison to the world: 101. [Source: CIA World Factbook]

The lack of infrastructure was a barrier to early development of the telecom industry of Laos. The mobile phone market took off in early 2003, with the number of subscribers increasing sevenfold in the two years following, however the telecom sector in Laos has many issues to address, especially with the recent price wars between Beeline and other Laotian mobile operators. The current market leader is Unitel, which has driven the market with its recent collaboration with Vietnamese company Viettel. Following right after, are Vimplecom (which recently acquired Tigo) and Beeline. The current mobile penetration has reached 80 percent of the population and 2011 saw a 25 percent increase in the number of mobile users moving from 4 million to 5 million. [Source: Singapore Management University +++]

While the internet services across the country still continue to lag, 2011 saw the boom in mobile broadband internet services, making internet accessible to the rural areas as well. All the mobile operators now offer 3G services, and free internet sites like 0.facebook.com have become popular. Unitel downloads up to 5 Mbps – faster than LaoTel and ETL. Currently,Beeline has the fastest 3G in Laos. Mobile broadband services got a further boost when the ISP Planet launched a 4G WiMAX service in Vientiane. While the numbers on mobile broadband penetration are unavailable, the government has said that they are building infrastructure to penetrate more into the rural areas of the country. Laos is still well behind many of its neighbours in terms of speed and price, although 3G is more widely available than in NE Thailand. +++

Laos is dumped with rip offs of iphones and android based phones, with pirated softwares and fake phones being imported from China. Chinese Android Tablets (Chipads) come with several language options, but not Lao. They are sold at $90-$100 in Vientiane, only 15 percent of the actual cost. Genuine Samsung and Apple phones and tablets are also available in Vietiane. Android also has a Lao Language software pack which is available for free with the phone. +++

Thai mobile phones can be used near the border in Laos. Similarly other neighboring country services like Cambodia, China and Vietnam are found near their borders. Laos telecommunications and IT improvements result from joint ventures between Thai, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese and Australian private enterprise and the Lao Government. Lao Telecom, Tigo (now Beeline), ETL and Unitel (StarPhone) are the main Lao mobile phone operators offering a variety of services including internet access via GPRS/EDGE, 3G, CDMA, WiFi, 4G WiMax wireless broadband and ADSL in some areas. Users can connect direct from a suitable phone or use the phone for tethering a modem to a laptop or PC. +++

Using Cell Phones and Smart Phones in Laos

International roaming is available throughout the country, but it is a good idea to check with your service provider as only a few international mobile phone companies have roaming agreement with Lao service providers. You can purchase a local pre-paid SIM card for your mobile phone in Laos. Lao mobile operators charge around Kip 2,000 for most international calls. Two operators offer international codes from mobiles: Beeline key 177 followed by country code and number, with ETL key 188. [Source: JandC Expat Services]

Area Code: starts with 0 for both land line and mobile phone (e.g. in Vientiane, 021 for land line, and 020 for mobile phone). When dialing from abroad, the first digit (0) of the area code is dropped.Within Laos, the 020 prefix must be dialed for calls made to mobile phone from land line, and all 3 digits of area code must be dialed for calls made from land line to land line in other provinces. The same applies to calls made from mobile phone to land line. For mobile phone to mobile phone you can dial with or without the 020 prefix, and land line to land line within the same province, dail with or without the 3 digits area code is OK.

From the 1st June 2010 Lao mobile numbers have 8 digits. A) 2 prefix is added to the numbers that begin with 2 or 3.Example: (020) 212 3456 will be 2212 3456. B) 5 prefix is added to the numbers that begin with 4, 5 or 6. Example: (020) 412 3456 will be 5412 3456. C) 7 prefix is added to the numbers that begin with 7. Example: (020) 712 3456 will be 7712 3456. D) 9 prefix is added to the numbers that begin with 8 or 9. Example: (020) 812 3456 will be 9812 3456

Mobile Phone SIM Cards: Phone SIMs can be purchased easily at any phone shop. Previously bought and used anonymously, user details are now required for registration of Lao SIMs. All SIM cards work in any normal (unlocked) mobile phone. The SIM’s purchase price is very low and mostly includes some free air time (aroundUS $4-7). Refill cards are easily available at any phone shop, minimart or side-of-the-road stall. Microsims are now available from M-Phone (Lao Telecom) and Beeline To check the balance on any Lao mobile phone, dial *122No. . To identify your own Lao SIM number send *110No.

Mobile Phone Operators in Laos: The main operators are Lao Telecom, ETL, Beeline (ex Tigo) and Unitel. Each provider has different grades and priorities of coverage, but I think it’s fair to say that Lao Telecom offers the broadest and best coverage for the entire country. As some areas of Laos may only work with SIMs from one or the other provider, we recommend to use the SIMs of two different providers (for this a dual SIMcard mobile phone is required).

While previously the mobile operators were free to offer promotions, the Lao government recently stepped in (all four mobile telecom operators are partly or fully owned by the Lao government) and stipulated call and data rates, which are now similar and within agreed criteria to allow equitable revenue share between them. Local mobile calls are charged at around Kip 800 per minute

Mobile Internet Access in Laos: For mobile internet access, Beeline, LaoTelecom, ETL and Unitel all offer some 3G services in Vientiane and Lao provincial cities, with 2G EDGE and GPRS as a fallback in less-populated areas. Beeline has the fastest 3G in Laos. Unlimted 3G packages are offered only by LaoTelecom (Kip 450,000/m) and Beeline (Kip 130,000/m). Both Lao Telecom and Beeline are expected to open 4G/LTE FDD/TDD services in Vientiane early in 2013. For travel around Laos, there are still areas where one or two ISPs are better than others; it’s as well to carry phone and/or data SIMs from more than one operator.

Which provider should I choose? It’s definitively not a cost based decision, as the price difference for air-time between the main operators is insignificant (prepaid cards). I believe it comes all down to location: where you are versus the people you want to call, as operators provide different coverage levels within Laos and for international calls. I often recommend to use two different providers (requires a mobile phone equipped with dual sim card) as their combined service will cover all needs.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Laos-Guide-999.com, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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