For years, in news rooms across the region, reporters and editors have argued about the merits of sending teams of journalists and photographers to cover the annual ASEAN summits. Interest is in a state of constant decline even as costs escalate.
A major problem is rarely do ASEAN gatherings offer news that would be considered worthy for the front pages of the region’s newspapers.
Instead journalists pick through the fluff of press releases looking for an angle that might add some meaning to summits that include regional and global leaders and their cabinet ministers.
Press conferences are not held like they once where, when leaders would stand before hundreds of correspondents from a hardened international press corps and answer difficult questions.
These days leaders duck for cover and hide only to re-appear for a smiling photo-op and a hand shake with their elected and unelected peers.
In short, access to the right people and what they really think at these summits has proved increasingly difficult and expensive.
It’s a situation that will not be helped by a succession of orders recently announced from the hardline communists in Laos, which is playing host as chair of this year’s ASEAN meets.
These include Stalin-era like regulations to be imposed on reporters, who may or may not attempt to cover this year’s summits and conferences, and even more bizarrely these same orders will also be applied to foreign diplomats.
Under the decree, any foreign media organization that wants to establish an office or simply report are required to have the contents of their dispatches vetted by the Laos foreign affairs ministry before being printed and broadcast.
The orders were issued by the former prime minister Thongsing Thammavong – who was ousted by from power by his own party in January.
Importantly, it states: “Through their reports, foreign media are required to promote bilateral and multilateral relations and cooperation in a positive manner.”
Further, foreign reporters who do not have an office in Laos but wish to file a story are required to apply for permission from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs at least 15 working days in advance.
That does not make any sense. Only Xinhua and the Vietnam News Agency have offices in Laos.
The six-page decree was published recently by the government’s English-language mouthpiece the Vientiane Times with observers saying the story had been backdated on its website to January this year.
For the record: “Reporters accompanying a foreign delegation on a visit to Laos are required to submit their names and plan of work to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs at least three days in advance.
“A foreign reporter must carry a press card issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs while working in Laos.
“Media organizations who grossly infringe Lao laws and regulations risk having their offices closed.
“Foreign embassies and international organizations in Laos who want to issue publications of any kind are required to submit the content of the publications to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for review. They are also required to observe the Media Law and other relevant laws.
“Foreign embassies and international organizations who wish to publish material in the Lao media are required to seek permission from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in collaboration with the Lao Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism.”
It says “the guidance” aims to ensure that agencies concerned with information affairs effectively perform their duties in line with Lao regulations and laws.
How one defines “grossly infringe” or a “positive manner” carries it’s own connotations. Press passes are normal but hardly the stuff of criminal law. And the idea that diplomats must submit themselves to a similar agenda before issuing a press release is lame.
Laos has been through some difficult times. Its multi-billion-dollar plans to construct a north-south rail line linking China with Thailand has yet to break ground, not unlike the east-west line linking Thailand and Vietnam across the southern pan-handle.
Bad publicity has followed its attempts to construct nine dams across and around the Mekong River, potentially choking off much needed water supplies and breeding grounds for fish in down stream countries.
Its human rights record has been disgraced by the disappearance of Sombath Somphone and a refusal by the authorities to launch credible investigations, while its handling of the Mekong River Commission has in part led to an evaporation of foreign donors.
As a journalist I would never advocate a media boycott of any event and I was opposed to attempts by some within Reporters San Frontiers to boycott the Beijing Olympics in 2008.
But serious questions about whether news organizations can justify the costs of sending genuine reporters to cover summits in Laos will be on the agenda at upcoming editorial meetings. In the meantime, Laos is doing everything they can to ensure nobody turns up.
In fact, the same questions in regards to the size of diplomatic delegations that should be sent will also be raised among the countries who normally attend – not just the 10 members of ASEAN but nations like the United States, Australia, Japan, India, and many more from Europe.
Whether the U.S. president attends is always matter of prestige.
But if Barack Obama has something to say he might have to ask the Laos government for permission more than two weeks before he can say it or publish it in a press release.
He might also need some “guidance” to ensure he acts in the “positive manner” that will be expected by his hosts, as will ASEAN leaders who have taken to Facebook and other forms of social media to help get their message across.
More than 300 ASEAN meetings and conferences are slated for this year with the emphasis, as always, on the major summits of foreign ministers and leaders. Issues range from cross border crimes to terrorism, economic growth to education, health and human rights.
At least a third of those meets are scheduled for Laos. It would be a shame if these important issues of state went unreported, particularly among the people these governments are meant to serve. Still, it might actually be easier and cheaper to cover these events from neighboring Thailand.
Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter @lukeanthonyhunt