Bounthanh Khammavong, a 52-year-old Polish activist of Lao heritage, was sentenced to five years imprisonment over criticising the Lao government on Facebook posts.
According to the Radio Free Asia‘s report, the prominent democracy activist was arrested in the capital Vientiane in June 2015. Khammavong was charged with “disseminating propaganda against the government with the intention of undermining the state” under Article 65 of the Lao penal code.
On September 18, Khammavong was found guilty by the Vientiane Supreme Court, which sentenced him to four years and nine months in prison. Radio Free Asia reports that Khammavong did not get a fair trial and was denied legal representation.
Khammavong founded in Poland the Organization of Lao Students for Independence and Democracy after he was forced into exile from Laos and became a citizen of Poland. In 2010 he returned to Laos.
RFA quotes Vanida Thephsouvanh, president of the Paris-based Lao Movement for Human Rights:
“At the last adoption of its UPR in June 2015, the Lao PDR rejected several important recommendations on human rights, including media and internet freedom. Bounthanh’s arrest is another proof that free expression has no place in the country”
The crackdown on freedom of expression in Laos reached new levels as Decree 327 was signed into law in September 2014 by Lao Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong. The new social-media regulations were introduced by the Ministry of Post and Telecommunications a year earlier.
The new law, modeled according to the limiting regulations used in China and Vietnam, prohibits criticising the government and the ruling communist party online. Under this law, both Internet users and Internet service providers may face criminal charges and significant penalties for violating the prohibition.
The new social media regulations were introduced due to the increasing use of social media platforms in the country. While Internet penetration rate remains pretty low in Laos (about 13% of the population in 2013), the use of social media is increasingly growing among the young population. Within two years, Facebook accounts have grown from 60,000 in 2011 to 400,000 in 2013.
According to the Freedom House report for the year 2014, the media in Laos is tightly controlled by the ruling communist party, as all publications must be preauthorized by the Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism (MICT).
Social media platforms online introduced new challenges to the controlling government. Unfortunately, instead of embracing the technological developments allowing public discourse, the Lao government decided to impose new regulations hazardous to freedom of expression in the country.