Two Australian journalists - a reporter for the AAP press agency and a reporter from the daily The Australian Financial Review - were briefly arrested by Laotian security services on the sidelines of the ASEAN summit. Police arrested the two as they trying to take pictures of the Friendship Bridge, which Australia money helped build, and took them to a police station where their passports were confiscated. A police officer told them it was forbidden to photograph the bridge since two rockets exploded in the area on 26 November. The army prevented a journalist from the AP news agency from approaching the scene of the explosion.
Reporters Without Borders urged the international press heading to Laos for the 10-country Association of East Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit to seize the opportunity to investigate lack of political rights there, particularly free expression.
Nearly 800 journalists are expected for the summit in Vientiane on 29-30 November, but the local press will be strictly limited in what it can cover, since journalists on the written press and online media are employees of the information and culture ministry.
The party newspaper Paxaxon (People) bills itself as a "revolutionary publication written by the people and for the people which serves the revolution’s political action." The foreign ministry also has a say in media content. Criticism of the "friendly countries," especially the Vietnamese big brother and Burma, is banned. And anyone caught "disseminating information that weakens the state" can be given a long prison sentence under the criminal code.
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 programmes on foreign radio stations.
Thousands of police and soldiers have been deployed in the streets of the capital to provide security and Reuters reported that foreign press photographers have been prevented from taking photos in public places.
Reporters Without Borders also recalled that two Laotians from the Hmong minority are currently imprisoned in Vientiane, who served as guides to European reporters Thierry Falise and Vincent Reynaud in 2003. Thao Moua and Pa Phue Khang were sentenced on 30 June 2003 to prison terms of 12-20 years.
Thierry Falise and Vincent Reynaud continue to lobby for the release of their guides who only tried "to make the humanitarian disaster experienced by some of the Hmong people better known". Reporters Without Borders urges Vientiane to free the guides who have not taken part in any violence.
For years, the foreign press has been prevented from covering this minority, particularly those living in isolated groups in the jungle who continue to battle the government. Amnesty International has reported that many civilians, particularly children, have died since 2003 "from lack of food or from wounds suffered during the conflict".
"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.
Reporters Without Borders 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, who was sentenced in 2002 to 20 years in prison for "anti-government activities". He was held secretly after his arrest, in 1999.