By Bianca Miglioretto

Two months ago, I was assigned by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to conduct a three-week radio production workshop on community radio in Laos. I was thrilled by the fact that I would be part of the beginning of the country’s first ever community radio in recent decades. It was indeed a huge challenge but at the same time a great experience.

Located in the province of Xieng Khuang, the Khoun Community Radio for Development has been sponsored by the UNDP. Like other newly-established community radio stations in other parts of the world, the Khoun Community Radio faces issues of long-term sustainability. But unlike most community radio stations, it is one that is still testing the waters in terms of media operations and more importantly, principles.

Laos is a big land locked country with a relatively small population of about six million. It is rich in natural resources with its rivers, forests, and minerals. Laos is also ruled by a communist government, which is understandably wary of the West, particularly the United States and is the sole provider of news and entertainment to the populace.

Living with the War’s Imprimatur

The impact of US aggression was so real to me even though decades have passed since the Vietnam war. A volunteer broadcaster of Khoun Radio lost his arm while working in the rice fields at the age of 16. During my stay, a mother and her children were hit by a bomb while also working in the fields. One of her kids died on the spot, while she and her other two children sustained injuries.

Laos is teeming with thousands and thousands of unexploded bombs (commonly referred to as UXOs or unexploded ordinances). Worse, many of these are cluster bombs. Laos has the highest number of bombs dropped per capita worldwide, with Xieng Khuang as the most affected province. Every week accidents with injuries and deaths happen. The farmers are usually hit by UXOs since most of these fell on agricultural lands, thus limiting their mobility and livelihood. But there are also accidents motivated by the desire to earn some more. Some people have purchased the more affordable China-made metal detectors as they intend to make money from the metal of these planted bombs.

Laos was not allied with Vietnam nor with the US yet the latter scarred the country with bombs and never took responsibility for them. Today US seems more interested in repatriating the remnants of the few US soldiers who were killed in Laos than repatriating their bombs.

The US has not only the left bombs. It also caused the government’s distrust towards particular indigenous peoples, whom the US used in its attempt to discredit the communist regime. Now, with the failed rebellion, the Mons have limited access to land and other resources. But then the regime also has a lot to explain and account for.

Limited Media History, Undefined Censorship

Nonetheless, the atmosphere in the country is not as poor nor repressive as one would easily associate with communist regimes. It is self-sufficient in the sense that most people are able to feed themselves with the produce from their own lands while much of its electricity is sourced from its mighty rivers. While media is monopolised by the state, I found some positive aspects particularly about its content.

It was refreshing to see common people as presenters on TV. There was no idealisation in relation to age and shape. There were no anorexic and pale incarnations of the American beauty myth, that we are used to see in commercial TV in the Philippines and other Asian countries. In the show, “Lao Karaoke,” one can even see singers in their 40s performing passionate love songs.

But the country’s limited media history is certainly a challenge for Khoun Community Radio, beginning with its own capacity-building programme. On the practical level, it was difficult to explain the open-source editing programme Audacity as majority of the 20 to 30 participants could not understand English. I was just fortunate to be working with an excellent translator who contributed substantially to the success of the training.

But the greater challenge lies at the people’s lack of experience in alternative media, that is a media other than the state media. Although there is no established rules on censorship, the staff and volunteers of the radio cannot draw the line between issues which can be discussed and those which are too controversial. They fear that they might say something “wrong.”

One issue which is too glaring but may be “wrong” to discuss over the air is the logging concessions licensed to companies of Laos’ richer neighbours: Vietnam, Thailand and China. Every day hundreds of first class logs are leaving Xieng Khuang towards the border with Vietnam. The locals have not truly benefited from these concessions even in terms of employment for the trees are being cut and transported by Vietnamese citizens.

But the staff and the volunteers also think that such subject may not be “wrong.” Slash and burn practices are no different with logging because in the process, these destroy the foliage and its inhabitants. Slash and burn agriculture is an important issue for the Environment Ministry.

While much remains to be desired on media governance, somehow I sensed the regime’s concern for the people particularly when dealing with the impact of infrastructure development --- something that seems completely alien in the Philippines. In constructing a huge hydro-dam project, for instance, the government consulted hundreds of affected families of their preferred relocation sites. The government ensured that affected residents would have better land and houses after relocation.

Funding Media Freedom

Over-all, I am satisfied with the training and its results. The interest shown by the participants was crucial in their final exercises, where they were tasked to produce their own radio programmes. I also appreciate the insights I learned about the country, its people and politics.

I am optimistic with the operations and impact of the Khoun Community Radio. There is no question about the capacities and commitment of the people. However I continue to ponder about the radio’s role in encouraging greater media freedom. For me, media freedom is a something that must be demanded from within.

One question for me is why UNDP chose to support Laos, where the people never asked for a community radio and not in places like Sagada in the Philippines, where people have been lobbying for a community radio for many years and are willing to invest their own time and labour for it.

Does the UNDP use community radio to loosen the state media monopoly?

The project coordinator of UNDP said they wanted to create democratic spaces. Sure, that is definitively important yet the question remains: why is democratic space more important in a liberal communist country than in a repressive capitalist country such as the Philippines?

Bianca Miglioretto is the community radio officer of Isis International.

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