In the past two months, the disappearance of Sombath Somphone, a well-known activist and NGO leader, has garnered international media attention. The Laos government is being urged to do a more extensive search on the whereabouts of the missing activist.
It’s a very good thing the world media is so concerned. The media in Laos usually does not publicize missing activists,to say the least. But the Sombath case has become a high profile story as media sources are questioning the Laos government for its lack of transparency and indifference in both this and other cases involving missing activists.
Several news articles have expressed dismay over the government’s censorship and suppression of civil society, rightly noting that the government has never been fond of activist activities. A prime example of activist suppression is explained in the prestigious Economist newspaper, the international weekly from London. It takes up the cases of the government’s deportation of Anne-Sophie Grindoz for writing a letter criticizing the one-party regime — and the censorship of an article by Somphone advocating the importance of the people’s voice.
In an interview with the Bangkok Post, Jon Ungpakorm, a member of the Natural Human Rights Commissions subcommittee, says, “Sombath’s disappearance is intended to suppress or threaten the emergence of civil society in [Laos]”. In addition to the Bangkok Post, many foreign media outlets have covered the government’s indifference and censorship towards activists, but not Laotian newspapers such as the English-language Vientiane Times. Many outside journalists concur with the blunt assessment of Rob O’Brien of the Asian Correspondent, who says flatly that the Vientiane Times is aligned with the government and will not publish anything without government permission. In fact, the Vientiane Times has framed the government in a favorable light with statements showing the government’s deep concern over the issue. Oh sure.
Despite their efforts, as U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton had called for more transparency in Laos. That appears to have loosened up the Communist Party a little. The Vientiane Times has begun running detailed police reports of the probes. But these tiny measures are a long way from assuring that activists simply do not disappear into the night.