During a visit to Mongolia this month, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry hailed the country as “an oasis of democracy.” Mongolia, sandwiched between powerful autocratic neighbors Russia and China, underwent democratic transition in 1990 when it broke away from Soviet rule, and has since held several elections characterized by the Asia Foundation as “reasonably free and fair.” The next exercise in democracy will be the parliamentary election Wednesday.
The 1990 revolution also ushered in an era of flourishing media. Despite having a population of just three million, Mongolia boasts over 400 media outlets, according to the Press Institute of Mongolia, with most of them founded in the past decade, according to the Los Angeles Times. Unlike in its neighbors, where the press is seriously restricted and there is a record of violence against journalists–as in Russia–or mass jailings–as in China–CPJ has documented no instance of journalists killed or jailed in Mongolia in recent years. However, the abundance of media outlets and the absence of serious persecution of journalists do not necessarily translate into press freedom. Legal harassment, political interference, and self-censorship impede the development of an independent and professional press in Mongolia.
Furthermore, according to Mongolian journalists and a media trainer who shared their experiences with CPJ, the election–regardless of who wins–is unlikely to bring significant changes to the press environment, as past elections have indicated. But progress can be made through journalists’ own collective actions, they said.
On the night of May 25, several hours before L. Bayasgalan, known as L. Munkhbayasgalan, host of TV show “Discussions without Censorship” was set to fly to Washington D.C. where she said she planned to meet with representatives of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) to discuss possible cooperation opportunities on the Panama Papers, Mongolian police summoned her and told her she was barred from leaving the country because she was under criminal investigation. The police accused Bayasgalan of fraud for failing to fulfill an advertising contract she signed with the state-owned Mongolian Airlines (MIAT) in 2013.
Bayasgalan said that she committed no fraud and questioned the motivation behind the criminal investigation. “Why are the police only picking my case? Why are they investigating this exactly now, while no questions were asked before?”
Mongolian police did not respond to CPJ’s request for comment regarding the alleged travel ban.
Bayasgalan said she has been under political pressure her entire journalism career. “The pressure has been there for 20 years–whether it is when the [ruling] Democratic Party is in power or when it is the Mongolian People’s Party.”
She said that on May 9, she interviewed a prominent Mongolian artist, who was critical of the current government, but the episode was never aired because a government official called the broadcaster, C1 Television, and threatened to revoke its license if the show aired. Bayasgalan showed CPJ a photo on her cell phone of her interviewing the artist. C1 Television did not respond to CPJ’s text messages and an email seeking comment.
Another journalist told CPJ he suffered repercussions for interviewing the “wrong” person. TV show host D. Jargalsaikhan, known as Jargal De Facto, said his show on the public Mongolian National Broadcaster (MNB) was cancelled after he interviewed J. Amarsanaa, the ousted head of the Constitutional Court, Mongolia’s highest court.
Less than a week after the parliament voted to dismiss Amarsanaa from the court, on February 22, Amarsanaa appeared on Jargalsaikhan’s live show to give his account of the dismissal and voice his displeasure with the parliament’s decision. Jargalsaikhan said the day after the show was aired, MNB told him that the channel would no longer work with him.
“I asked why, they said ‘because [the episode] is not in line with the policy of public TV.’ And I said ‘it is exactly in line because the Mongolian public has the right to understand what has happened exactly,'” Jargalsaikhan told CPJ. MNB did not respond to CPJ’s text messages and an email seeking comment.
Jargalsaikhan said Mongolian public broadcasters lack independence, as ruling politicians appoint loyal personnel to key positions. “It doesn’t matter which political party, it doesn’t matter who is taking power in this country, they change the leadership of public TV and public radio every time,” said Jargalsaikhan. His assertion is backed up by a 2012 report by the German political foundation Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, which states, “However, the appointment process for the governing body of the [MNB] is heavily influenced by political considerations and power relations and strong control over its editorial operations by the ruling parties is evident.”
Lkhagva Erdene, executive producer of news at the privately owned TV channel Mongol TV, said that one way for the government to pressure independent news media is to limit their access to the government. “Usually how they censor us is to bar us from entering the government compound so we can’t cover parliamentary activities or high level visits by presidents and prime ministers,” Lkhagva told CPJ.
Lkhagva said that Mongol TV’s broadcasting signals have been cut several times, with the most recent incident occurring on Monday, but he has no evidence that government interference was the cause. “When we told the public at 9 p.m. we were going to reveal some of the offshore accounts of the mayors, our signal was also cut by a small cable company. But when we asked the cable company what happened to our broadcast signals, they said ‘oh, there were some technical difficulties.'” He noted that cable operators’ licenses are also subject to government approvals. “Cable companies are afraid of media commissioners,” Lkhagva said.
Another threat to journalists’ independence in Mongolia, according to journalists with whom CPJ spoke, is the prevalence of politicians directly owning news outlets. “The vast majority of Mongolian media outlets are owned by prominent politicians and businesspeople–for journalists, this means that the line between vested interests, and editorial independence, is exceptionally thin,” Lisa Gardner, an Australian journalist who trained in 2013 and 2014 the staff of the UB Post, Mongolia’s leading English newspaper.
Said Lkhagva, “The politicians do whatever they want with their media and they certainly all have an agenda.”
Jargalsaikhan lamented that journalists have no choice but to self-censor: “For example, TV 9 is owned by former President [Nambar] Enkhbayar. Now his party is running for election. His station is only praising him.” Jargalsaikhan added: “Many journalists are completely dependent on their owner. They just keep silent because they don’t want to lose their jobs. They have families to take care of. It’s hard for young journalists.” TV9 did not respond to CPJ’s text and Facebook messages requesting comment.
Still, moves have been made in a positive direction, according to Gardner. The long-fought Law on Information Transparency and Right to Information, which provides legal protection for the right to information, was passed in 2011 and there have been efforts in recent years toward raising awareness of this law in remote areas, she said. In early 2015, the Media Ethics Council, a gathering of prominent journalists, was established to determine a code of ethics by which Mongolian journalists would regulate themselves.
“While these initial efforts are only now getting underway, it is exciting to see this kind of grassroots initiative take place, particularly across news outlets,” Gardner said.
Lkhagva said, “The change has to come from within the media sector. We can complain about the government, but the government can’t improve the media literacy of all the public. The government can’t create agencies like The New York Times, BBC. It has to be built by honest and hardworking journalists.”