Politics and Media
Politics and Media
In Mongolia politics is business and business is politics. This is made obvious by an official institution: The “Independent Authority Against Corruption” (IAAC) publishes the business interests of parliament members including the Cabinet. An astonishing info graphic made by one online news media based on IAAC information shows, for example, that the new Prime Minister J.Erdenebat, appointed in July 2016, reported that he is the owner of three real estate properties and holds shares of four companies, one of which he wholly owns. He also self-declared to own three vehicles which are valued at 116 million MNT (around 6000 Euro) in total.
The Prime Minister is not the only one big in business. In fact, there are very few of the 76 parliament members that do not own – or did not declare - one or more businesses. Furthermore, the graphic might only be the tip of the iceberg, since the Head and Deputy Head of the “Independent Authority” is in fact nominated by parliament itself.
Still, it is reasonable to assume that media belongs to the vested business interests of Mongolian politicians – however, few MPs have self-declared to own media companies, for example D. Sarangerel (shares in TV 5) and G. Batkhuu (shares in Media Group which owns among others NTV television).
Among MOM top media there is one outstanding: The “Mongolyn Unen” newspaper is the only newspaper that clearly states on its front page that this is a political party newspaper. It belongs to the Mongolian’s People Party (MPP), which won a landslide victory in the 2016 elections. Consequently, the current Cabinet Secretary, J. Munkhbar, was Editor-in-Chief of the newspaper 2011-2013. The MPP used to be the communist Mongolian’s People Revolutionary Party (MPRP), which ruled the country for almost 70 years, thus being in total control of the State owned Media. (See Context History)
Limited editorial independence and media owners in disguise
Since Mongolia’s peaceful transition to democracy, the 1992 Constitution guarantees all citizens the freedoms of opinion and expression and the rights to information and to publish. In 1998 the Press Freedom Law was adopted, albeit with just two pages, mainly stating the state should not own media. In 1995 a regulatory body for TV and radio broadcasters and internet was created, called Communication Regulatory Commission (CRC). In fact, the CRC members are nominated by the government and the state owned TV and radio stations were only transformed into public service media by law in 2005.
In 2011 the CRC finally adopted procedures concerning commercial broadcasting, digital content, advertising, licensing and disclosure of media ownership. Part of this was the 2011 Law on Information Transparency and the Right to Information (LITRI). In reality, however, the freedom of media and editorial independence is limited, as a closer look at the legal regulations reveals. (See Context Law)
Likewise transparency obligations for media owners are deficient. Print media outlets need to be registered, but the owner of the outlet, his shares in the company or media market are not relevant for the registration. Also online news media need to be registered with the CRC, but there are no ownership disclosure requirements for these media.
Only for TV and radio stations the government appointed CRC demands transparency of license owners. License holders are obliged to submit to the CRC a written statement with names and shares of owners and investors, management structure and names of executive staff. However, the information is only published on the page for license holders (and not on the page designed for citizens) and it requires certain efforts to find ownership information from the website. In addition, the information is often incomplete and/or outdated. But as of October 2016 the CRC, though entitled to do so, did not take any measures regarding non-fulfilment of ownership disclosure requirements.
In 2016 parliament failed, again, to amend the media law with a draft proposing safeguarding editorial independence as well as a provision that requires transparency of media owners and their shares. Furthermore, after the elections in June 2016 the victorious Mongolian People’s Party (MPP) decided in the Government’s Action Plan 2016–2020 to omit endeavours to establish ownership disclosure practices in the media sector. (See Context Law)
From government mouthpieces to Media Freedom Law
Although substantial legislation is still lacking, the democratic changes and legal reforms have undoubtedly increased the freedom of the media considerably. In 2016 Mongolia was ranked 60 out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index of Reporters Without Borders. This is six ranks down from its best ranking in 2015 as number 54 and 38 ranks up from its worst ranking 98 in the years 2012 and 2013.
The Press Freedom Index 2016 comments: “The state media’s transformation from government mouthpieces to public services in recent years and the creation of the first Media Council in February 2015 have improved the environment for the media. But still very imperfect media legislation has weakened the virtuous circle that has existed since 2014. Lawsuits against the media are on the rise and many websites have been blocked. The government’s lack of transparency and susceptibility to criticism limit the media’s ability to act as a watchdog.”
The ultimate instrument against media was, so far, used once. In 2008, the government declared a State of Emergency after thousands of people staged violent street protests against the election results, claiming massive fraud. The President imposed a four day curfew and closed all TVstations, with the exception of the public service radio and television. Eila Romo-Murphy comments in her PhD: “This incident clearly shows that the Mongolian media environment, in instances like this, is experiencing governmental interference similar to one, which in theory could be classified under the authoritarian model.”
The biggest apple of discord: Big Business and Corruption
Throughout the 25 years of democratic developments the biggest apple of discord between politics and the media always was and still is: Big Business and Corruption.
It already darkened the background of the deep political crisis in 1998 when “the father of democracy”, Sanjaasürengjin Zorig, was killed. For month, thousands held candlelight vigils on Sükhbaatar Square wildly speculating who was behind the murder. Also the media was brimming with massive corruption charges. After all, Zorig was Minister of Infrastructure in the first non-Communist government elected in 1996. He had managed several big money deals, among them the giant Erdenet copper mine, forty-nine percent Russian owned.
Furthermore, Zorig was designated to become Prime Minister and replace his party fellow Ts. Elbegdorj, who fell into disgrace with his decision, to allow the merger of the state-owned Reconstruction Bank and the private Golomt Bank, which was owned by members of the Democratic Party. The news of the merger led to public outrage and the resignation of the Elbegdorj government. However, he reappeared later as President, being reelected in 2013 for a second term.
His successor as Prime Minister, Narantsatsralt, served for only seven month; then he was sacked for mishandling the Erdenet copper mine, being accused of secretly setting up the mine for a cheap sell off to the Russians. (See "Big Business & Washed News")
A particular conflict-zone between politics and the media are big environmental problems big business interests cause. In 2011, RSF protested this case: “Reporters Without Borders is concerned about the arrest of two journalists, Gantumut Uyanga and her husband Baviya Baatarkhuyag, after they criticised nature, environment and tourism minister Luimed Gansukh in the daily Udriin Sonin for moving with his family into a million-dollar house soon after the government signed an agreement with a Canadian firm, Ivanohe Mines, to mine copper and gold at Oyu Tolgoi.” Both journalists were freed and later the Ulaanbaatar court upheld the dismissal of a libel suit brought by the minister against Uyanga.
Another disturbing incidence occurred in 2015, when the investigative journalist Luntan Bolormaa, editor-in-chief of the “Mongolian Mining” journal was found dead in her home. The police investigation concluded there was no criminal background to the case, but family, friends and colleagues remain suspicious. Shortly before her sudden death, Bolormaa had published a series of articles about the Minister of Social Welfare, which allegedly used large sums of his budget not for handicapped children, but for private business endeavours. Neither parliament nor police investigated these allegations. Instead, the Minister in question was re-elected as Member of Parliament for the Democratic Party in June 2016. (See "Big Business & Washed News")
Pressure on journalists
The multiple links between politics and businesses result in multiple pressures on media outlets and journalists. Apparently, not much has changed from the findings of a 2007 World Bank report: “Media outlets are either politically or financially dependent, which puts them in the position of serving the owners rather than the public. In some cases, the relationships prevent the journalists from being neutral.”
One recent example is the news website Amjilt.com. In July 2014, the website published a story about a prime minister owning a tourist camp which is shedding sewage into Tuul river. The story was documented by a photo taken from the spot. The CRC accused the website of ‘violating the law’ and registered it on its black list, closing access to the website. The website appealed to court and in November 2015 the website was re-opened. However, decision making processes concerning licensing are in-transparent and lack public participation. (See Context Law)
Mongolian politicians also frequently violate journalist’s right to protect their sources. Globe International documented a total of 43 cases between 2005 and 2014 involving disclosure demands to reveal confidential sources. The Media Freedom Report 2012-2014 points out: “There is no legal requirement for journalists to comply with these extrajudicial demands. However, if they do not comply, it is common for claims to be made that the report in question is not based on a legitimate source.”
The pressures of media owners with political and/or business affiliations open doors to self-censorship. In addition, most Mongolian journalists face personal economic pressures as they are generally overworked and underpaid. Reportedly it is very common that reporters depend on an extra income and put their profession on sale, producing “Paid Content” or “Washed News”, as Mongolians say. (See "Big Business & Washed News")
Independent Authority Against Corruption, info graphic on business interests of parliament members and the Cabinet
Mongolia Focus, Erdenebat Cabinet, 2016
RSF, Newspaper editor Dolgor Chuluunbaatar freed on bail, 2016
Assessment of Media Development in Mongolia, UNESCO Bejing, 2016
Media Freedom Report 2012-2014, Globe International Center, Mongolia, 2015
"The Enabling Environment for Social Accountability in Mongolia”, World Bank Report No. 32584-MN, retrieved in October 2016
Michal Kohn, Dateline Mongolia – An American Journalist in Nomad’s Land, RDR Books, USA, 2007