Attacks on the Press 2001: Mongolia

The year began with a tragic accident that claimed the lives of three journalists, who died on January 14 when their United Nations-chartered plane crashed in northwestern Mongolia. Tsevegmid Batzorig, a photographer associated with the private Mongolian photo agency Gamma; Takahiro Kato, a reporter for the Japanese broadcaster NHK; and Minoru Masaki, a cameraman for NHK, were traveling to cover U.N.-sponsored relief efforts in the region, which had been devastated by extraordinarily cold weather and heavy snows. Six other people died in the crash, which was apparently caused by pilot error.

The May 2001 re-election of President Natsagiin Bagabandi further cemented the power of his Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party (MPRP), the formerly communist party that ruled the country for decades as a satellite of the Soviet Union. The party also swept parliamentary elections in 2000, winning 72 of 76 seats in the legislative body, known as the Great Hural.

Upon his re-election, Bagabandi pledged to defend press freedom and human rights, saying that the MPRP, which held exclusive power from 1924 until 1990, would not use its political dominance to suppress opposition views. Prime Minister Nambar Enkhbayar, chairman of the MPRP, has also stated his commitment to upholding press freedom.

A 1998 Law on Freedom of the Media contains many important provisions, including a requirement that “the state shall not impose control (censoring) over the contents of public information.” However, in practice, politicians in Mongolia remain uncomfortable with media scrutiny, and officials tend to limit journalists’ access to information about the government. Old habits of self-censorship remain common, and in-depth political reporting is rare.

The press law also requires the state to relinquish control over all print and broadcast media. Yet Mongolian National Television and Radio (MNTR) remained in the government’s hands at the end of 2001, despite repeated promises to turn it into an independent public broadcaster. The head of MNTR is a political appointee, and its news coverage is heavily tilted toward the ruling party.

While there are private broadcast outlets in Mongolia, none have the range of MNTR, which reaches across Mongolia’s vast and often inhospitable landscape. Radio is a particularly powerful medium in a country where roughly half the population are nomadic herders, and many journalists and political observers note that no government has yet been willing to relinquish control over such a useful tool.

In recent years, the government has lifted restrictions on publishing licenses, leading to the growth of a tabloid press that devotes most of its attention to crime, celebrity gossip, and sex scandals. Journalists worry that these publications may fuel a perception that the press has abused its freedom, thereby giving politicians an excuse to impose censorship. This year, the Ministry of Justice prepared a draft revision of Mongolia’s criminal code that included tougher punishments for libel. Though the legislation had not been finalized at press time, criminal penalties for libel and defamation appear likely to remain on the books.