Big Business & Washed News
Mongolia is a rich country, so a lot is at stake – for business and politicians as well as for media and journalists reporting about conflict of interests. MOM has collected examples for the heavy political influence on the media, of legendary corruption cases and of threats against journalists unveiling them including, not least, the pressures behind “Washed News” which is intoxicating the professionalism and thus the credibility of Mongolian media.
According to MOM researches it seems, that Mongolia as “Central Asia’s best young democracy” is more advanced also with regard to obscure media ownership. Pressures and suppression are not as obvious as in neighboring countries which fell back to authoritarian rule. In Mongolia, restrictions of media freedom and confinement of media ownership is more sophisticated, meaning better hidden. (See Indicators)
Strong government influence on media and media ownership
All media regulatory bodies are part of the government structure, so all decisions made by these bodies can directly be influenced by the executive branch. For example, via nominating the senior staff of the regulatory body CRC, the political party in power will have a strong influence over the licensing process. Most broadcasting channels owned by members of the Democratic Party acquired their licenses during the party’s term in office (2004 to 2008). In the following four years, with the Mongolian People’s Party now at the helm, most broadcasting houses in the possession of its members were granted their licenses. (See Context Law)
Big business with big political affiliations - and vice versa
In Mongolia, like elsewhere, politics means business and business is politics: Almost all members of parliament own one or more private companies. And this is just, what MPs self-declared to the “Independent Authority Against Corruption” (IAAC) which is by no means independent since the Head and Deputy Head of the “Authority” is in fact nominated by parliament itself.
Still, for example, the new Prime Minister J. Erdenebat, elected 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 (6000 Euro) in total. (See Context Politics and Economy)
It is reasonable to assume that the media market belongs to their business targets – however, according to an astonishing info graphic made by an online news media based on IAAC information, 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).
Legendary Corruption Cases from the start
Big business interests already smouldered behind the deep political crisis in 1998 when “the father of democracy”, Sanjaasürengjin Zorig, was killed. The media as well as the masses holding candlelight vigils at Ulaanbaatar’s city center raised massive corruption charges. After all, Zorig was Minister of Infrastructure in the second government of the Democratic Coalition elected in 1996. He had managed several big money deals, among them the giant Erdenet copper mine, with big Russian and Mongolian businessmen involved. Nobody implied that Zorig himself was corrupt; speculations rather rumored that he might have enraged some of the big fishes in the very big pond.
Even more so, as 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 merger, illegal and corrupt, made several Democrats and their friends extremely rich”, commented American journalist Michael Kohn. The news of the merger and background reports led to public outrage and the resignation of the Elbegdorj government.
However, this did not pacify the public disgust shown by mass protests which lasted for month, despite sub-zero temperatures on Freedom Square – named in recognition of the heroes of the peaceful transition, some of which founded the Democratic Party which had now fallen so deep. “It was easy to see why the Democrats were so loathed. They lived luxurious lifestyles; driving around in expensive SUVs, chatting on mobile phones (a privilege at the time). No one believed they were spending their own salary, which amounted to just US $ 100 per month”, wrote Michael Kohn.
However, no evidence was ever released – not on Zorig’s murderers nor on the corruption charges – but the political system reacted. Parliament convened and all – yes, all – MPs voted to shut down a multi-million dollar casino owned by investors from Macau. Earlier, police had announced that three MPs were under arrest for taking bribes from the Macau casino company. “The case was a Mongolian Watergate. For the first time the public saw “infallible” politicians tossed in jail. Never again would a seat in Parliament equal a free ride. MPs, now fearing for their own safety, publicly returned expensive gifts”, wrote Michael Kohn, possibly a bit over-optimistic. But, indeed, two of the jailed politicians were sentenced to prison for five years each, the third one for three and a half years.
And the new Prime Minister, J. Narantsatsralt, served only for seven month; then he was himself sacked, being accused of secretly setting up the Erdenet copper mine for a cheap sell off to the Russians.
But this was about it, the legendary cases where media played a role in unveiling corruption cases leading to political consequences, even to arrest and prosecution. Presumably, there aren't no more scandals happening – but journalists themselves lament the weak state of investigative journalism in Mongolia resulting in few whistle blowing headlines. Possibly, politics succeeded in streamlining the media. Definitely, politicians developed a bigger skin. And consequently, it seems, the public has become more accustomed, if not resigned.
So, for example, Ex-Prime Minister Elbegdorj, who had lost his job over a huge bank scandal, reappeared as President, being reelected in 2013 for a second term.
Also in 2013, news that Parliament deputy speaker, B. Sangajav, owned US $1 million in a Swiss bank account caused a major debate in Mongolia. Sangajav stepped down as speaker but remained Member of Parliament.
And in 2015 the disturbing story of investigative journalist Luntan Bolormaa, editor-in-chief of the “Mongolian Mining” journal did not have any consequences. 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 as designated for kindergardens for handicapped children, but for his private business endeavours. Concerning the journalist’s sudden death, the police investigation concluded there was no criminal background to the case. But concerning the story, neither police nor parliament ever investigated the allegations. Instead, the Minister in question was re-elected as Member of Parliament for the Democratic Party in June 2016.
In addition, the political parties seem to close ranks. The current MPP Prime Minister J. Erdenebat served as finance minister under former DP Prime Minister Saikhanbileg Chimed in 2014-15, when the major parties unified to approve the second phase of the giant Oyu Tolgoi project. Investment was dragged down after a dispute between the government and the international Rio Tinto Group, which controls 66 percent of the Oyu Tolgoi mine, the country’s biggest taxpayer. So, with both major parties in the same boat sharing the same business interest one could think that there would be still the fourth pillar of democracy left to unveil smelly deals. Instead, the parties also combine forces putting pressures on media and journalists.
Well-known journalist Lkhagva Erdene sums it up: “Mongolian media tend to shy away from investigative reporting, from the difficult-to-prove stories. The truth stands no chance against voices silenced by owners, advertisers and government. Journalism education is weak. With uncompetitive pay and nobody to cheer you on, it is little wonder not many journalists and newsrooms venture into the area of covering important but often controversial topics.”
In 2016 there was an exception when Lkhagva was involved in the disclosure of the Panama Papers. The leak documented that many Mongolian politicians and public officials, including former Prime Minister S. Batbold, a foreign affairs advisor to the President and the son of the former mayor of Ulaanbaatar, were linked to offshore companies. The news prompted major debates in public arenas and in the parliament – but in the latter in a reverse, as not to say perverse way: “Implicated politicians and their party supporters condemned the reports, threatened to take us to court and tried to discredit the editorial team and reporters”, recounts Lkhagva who is the chief-editor of Mongol TV. This station also proved in MOM researches as a rare exception to the opaque rules that confine Mongolian media.
Mounting pressures on media and journalists
In particular, when Mongolia’s priceless nature is on sale journalists have everything to fear.
In defense of their interests Mongolian businessmen and politicians often intimidate and violate journalist’s right to protect their sources – a right that in Mongolia anyway only exists for journalists of the Public Service Broadcaster. And, if this doesn’t help, they change the laws. So it was a short lived victory for Tsetsgee Munkhbayar, an activist with the United Movement of Rivers and Lakes, when the Supreme Court in 2011 ordered the government to enforce a 2009 law banning all mining in river basins and forests. In 2013 parliament voted to revise this law and Munkhbayar organized a mass demonstration outside parliament. Several media reported – and the journalists were promptly questioned by the General Intelligence Agency (GIA) to reveal their sources. Also in 2014 a number of journalists and bloggers were interrogated by the GIA and told to reveal the sources for their reports and tweets about an agreement between the two main political parties concerning the Erdenet copper mine.
The Globe International Center (GIC) 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.”
Libel suits are another option. In 2011 RSF protested this case: “Reporters Without Borders is concerned about the arrest of two journalists, Gantumur Uyanga and her husband Avia 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.” However, in this case the Ulaanbaatar court upheld the dismissal of a libel suit brought up by the minister against Uyanga.
A GIC study on the use of defamation laws between 1999 and 2014 counted a total of 354 civil and 32 criminal defamation cases against media and journalists. At least this demand was partially met: Defamation was decriminalized by the new Criminal and Offence laws adopted in 2015. But more often than not civil defamation cases are used against journalists, which is still possible. (See Context Law)
Also, licensing can be used: A recent example is the case of the news website Amjilt.com. In July 2014, Amjilt.com 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 from Mongolia. The website appealed to court and in November 2015 the website was re-opened. (See Context Law)
Last not least, illegal wildlife trade is more than a picturesque sideshow. For many years the sale of Mongolia’s famed falcons made headlines nationally and even more so abroad. Arab Sultans, Princes and ordinary businessmen were paying a fortune for Mongolian falcons to enrich their hunting expeditions back home. Many reports were written about various “falcon mafias” involving a multitude of governments, Ministers and officials in Mongolia and abroad, most prominently from Turkmenistan, Saudi-Arabia and Kuwait – the latter, probably not out of the blue, funding in return road projects in Mongolia, as well as an overpriced US $ 33 million hydro-electric dam in the Gobi Desert.
The New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) reports that nearly all of Mongolia’s annual US $ 100 million revenue earned from wildlife trade is illegal. Since some years these headlines have diminished – as did the falcons.
What remains, for everybody to see, is the fleet of 40 000 Dollar SUVs in front of government offices where officials earn 300 Dollars a month.
Political culture – Media culture
“It is common for politicians and other people in power to react to criticism by exerting direct pressure on the media in various ways, including through threats to editors of journalists”, concludes a 2016 UNESCO report.
Between October 2006 and January 2015, out of a total of 375 cases of violations of the professional rights of journalists and media, GIC documented 22 physical attacks, 20 instances of damage to cameras and 48 cases of illegal detention or criminal cases.
Legal regulations for safeguarding editorial independence of media only exist for the Mongolian National Public Broadcaster (MNB) – and those rules are not being enforced. In reality, media owners as well as advertisers can directly influence editorial decision making and professional operations of newsrooms. Because regulations to prevent conflicts of interests are weak and in-effective, there is an unwritten rule among journalists to refrain from critics if the subject matter deals with persons or companies affiliated with the owner or advertiser. (See Context Law)
This encourages self-censorship and has a serious impact on the professional autonomy of newsrooms. A common practice of media owners and managers is to sign “agreements of cooperation” with governmental agencies and private companies. Such agreements include so-called “blocking” or non-disclosure provisions that prevent the publication of critical materials concerning the respective parties to the particular agreement, GIC reports.
An example of such an agreement was revealed by Uyanga Gantumur, a former journalist and newspaper owner turned MP. In an interview with Mongol TV during the 2012 World Press Freedom Day, G.Uyanga stated that most of the Mongolian media were silent about the alleged offshore fortune of a prominent politician and former minister because he had reportedly signed non-disclosure agreements with media outlets.
Another example how editorial pressures work: Four journalists left their jobs after their editor published apologies on behalf of the journalists even though the information was allegedly true. A GIC survey of journalists concludes: “Self-censorship is widely practised in Mongolia. Journalists and editors often strive to avoid offending advertisers and investors, are fearful of certain powerful actors, and face pressure to follow the editorial policy determined by the owners of their media outlets. There is therefore a high reluctance to offend, since journalists are easily ostracized for criticizing the 'wrong' people or writing about the 'wrong' things.”
The ruin of professional journalism – Washed News
Not least, journalists are economically under pressure. Most journalists are badly paid. Although 57 % of media employees working as journalists, editors and reporters have an educational background in journalism and almost all have a university degree, they earn on average 780 0000 Mongolian tugrik per month, which equals some 320 Euro and is comparable to a middle class public servant salary. The meager salaries of journalists’ open doors for “paid content”, or, as Mongolians say, “Washed News”.
“The majority of media outlets prepare paid-for news stories and politicians often invite journalists out for dinner or on trips abroad. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence indicating that journalists take bribes and “envelopes”. For example, one of the online news websites mentioned that approximately 1.000 journalists were invited to the opening ceremony of the trade center Dunjingarav, during which they were “awarded” with either a free travel coupon to Hainan in China or with a portable computer”, a 2016 UNESCO study concludes.
It is obvious for readers and some journalists admit it openly: media and journalists are extremely dependent on financial support from politicians and businesses. So Mongolia media are full of Paid-for news stories prepared in a journalistic format without proper distinction. They can be seen in any daily newspaper or current affairs programme on television. It is no condolence that audiences have learned to “read” that stories.
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
RSF, Violence against press during post-election protests, 2016
Assessment of Media Development in Mongolia, UNESCO Bejing, 2016
Media Freedom Report 2012-2014, Globe International Center, Mongolia, 2015
Wildlife Science and Conservation Center Mongolia, Saker Falcon Research and Conservation, (n.d.)
GIC Survey of journalists, 2014, cited by UNESCO study, p. 84
Zinnia News cited in UNESCO study (Mongolian language)
Mongolian Media Landscape: Sector Analysis, UNESCO, Beijing, 2007, p. 24
ICIJ, Panama Papers collaboration breaks new ground in Mongolia, 2016