One central demand of the very first political hunger strike in 1990 was the independence of the state-run media and the liberalization of the broadcast sector. The pro-democracy protests gathering for month on the central square in the capital Ulaanbaatar were the first signs that, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the “winds of change” were becoming strong in neighboring Mongolia.
Till then, for many decades, the vast country was a staunch ally and devote copier of the repressive socialist system soviet style. The iron conjunction started when Mongolian revolutionaries went to Russia to ask for support for freeing Mongolia from the Chinese, which was achieved in 1921. In 1924 the 8th Bogd Khan, the worldly and religious leader of Buddhism in Mongolia, died. Promptly, the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party took power, converting Mongolia into the world’s second Communist country. In 1928 the forceful collectivization of the land and the economy began – not an easy task in a society shaped since centuries by nomads that were roaming freely through the vast steppes with their herds of horses, sheep, goats and camels. In 1932, the failure of collectivization led to widespread uprisings. It was not before 1950, that the Communist Party of Mongolia could finally collectivize herds and herders.
In the meantime policies of the Mongolian communists were shaped by Stalinist purges. The peak of the terror between 1937 and 1939 lead to the deaths of more than thirty thousand people – in particular Buddhist monks and Lamas were killed at random and the ancient monasteries all over the country destroyed. Again in 1965, the dreadful Communist party leader Tsedenbal purged the intelligentsia with an unknown, but certainly high number of people being jailed, tortured, killed or driven out of the country.
Accordingly, for almost 70 years, Mongolian journalists were crippled under a strict socialist system, with all media being state-owned and all content tightly controlled. The regime monopolized the entire media space and no opposition newspapers, radio or TV stations were allowed. Furthermore, all media were forced to relay propaganda, serving as a tool of information – or rather disinformation – and manipulation in the interest of the State, as defined by the Communist party. The editorial content of all media was systematically censored by the Committee for controlling media and literature, which was reporting to the Council of Ministers, the Cabinet, and thus being directly controlled by the party.
However, it is noteworthy that the socialist system was a strict one-party rule, driven by ideology, but not a “business cronies” system that served to personally enrich the family and friends of the powerful and well connected.
Emerging from scratch – Central Asia’s best young democracy
The concept of press freedom was first introduced by the democratic movement starting in 1989. Inspired by the fall of the Berlin Wall masses of peaceful pro-democracy protesters relentlessly occupied Ulaanbaatar’s city square. Finally, the one and only, eternally ruling Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party gave in: they amended the Constitution to allow for multi-party elections. Thus, in summer 1990 the first democratic elections were held. The old communists won – more or less surprisingly.
After all, the soviet system had provided unknown health care and a free education system including University studies. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, which assisted up to 30 per cent to the Mongolian Gross domestic product (GDP), also Mongolia’s economy collapsed. Shops were empty, schools closed, factories abandoned. Hunger took the streets of Ulaanbaatar. It took some years, till the privatized economy picked up, allowing to restore a basic universal health care and free education system.
In 1992, a new Constitution was adopted, which effectively transformed the country from a one-party regime into a democratic state – with no shot fired, though a violent escalation sometimes seemed all too close.
Mongolia was now a parliamentary republic with a system of checks and balances and separation of powers. The highest political body is the State Great Khural, a unicameral parliament of 76 members who are directly elected for four-year terms. The government is composed of the prime minister and cabinet members who are accountable to the Parliament. Parliamentary elections are held every four years as well as separate elections to elect local soums and district Khurals.
Ever since, regular elections have taken place, frequently bringing a change of power, with the two main parties – the Mongolian People’s Party (which skipped in 2010 the ‘Revolutionary” to become the MPP) and the Democratic Party (DP) – alternating majorities in parliament and/or winning the Office of the President. The Head of State is elected by popular vote for a four year term. The current President is the former Prime Minister Elbegdorj, who had to step down because of corruption charges, but was nevertheless reelected as President in 2013 for a second term. He was nominated by the Democratic Party, but once elected a President has to drop the membership of any political party.
A backlash for democratic developments happened in 1998, when Sanjaasürengjin Zorig was killed - a legendary leader of the democracy movement and founder of the Democratic Party. For month, thousands participated in candlelight vigils on Sükhbaatar Square. “They were not here just for Zorig the man; they had come to defend democracy”, reports American journalist Michael Kohn, then working for the still State owned “Mongolian Messenger”. He also criticized his colleagues: “The local media was filled with rumor, innuendo and character assassination”. In wild speculations, who was behind the murder massive corruption charges were raised. After all, Zorig was Minister of Infrastructure in the second government of the Democratic Coalition elected in 1996. Police investigations never revealed the perpetrators, thus fueling rumors it was a political murder. (See “Big Business & Washed News”)
After the untimely death of the national beacon of hope, Zorig’s sister Oyun entered politics. With a PhD in geology at University of Cambridge she worked for the multinational mining company Rio Tinto which is prominently active in Mongolia – with a much disputed record among environmentalists. (See Context Economy)
Upon her return home Oyun immediately won the by-elections in her brother's constituency. In 2000, she broke with the Democrats to found her own “Civil Will Party”, dedicated to the motto “environmentally friendly and politically clean”. She was re-elected three times to Parliament and served in coalition governments as Minister of Foreign Affairs and Minister of Environment and Green Development. Since 2014 Oyun is the first president of the United Nations Environment Assembly. She did not run again in the elections in June 2016, when the Mongolian People’s Party won a landslide victory, almost eradicating the Democratic Party to nine seats.
With functioning political procedures firmly in place, Mongolia likes to be called “Central Asia’s best young democracy”.
Democracy triggering a Media boom – with a taste
With the new constitution adopted in 1992 the freedom of speech and information was acknowledged. Nevertheless, the Committee for controlling media and literature stayed in place, because until 1998 there was still state controlled media. Only then the Media Freedom Law – with just two pages, mainly stating the state should not own any media and officially prohibiting censorship – was adopted. Ever since, all attempts to amend the Media Law failed in parliament, latest in 2016 when another draft law included transparency obligations for media owners. (See Context Politics)
In 1995 a regulatory body for TV and radio broadcasters and internet was created, called Communication Regulatory Commission (CRC). But in fact, the CRC is appointed by the government and the state owned and controlled biggest TV and radio stations were only transformed into public service media by the Law on Public Service Broadcasting adopted by Parliament in 2005. (See Context Law)
Nevertheless, ever since private media ownership was allowed, the market boomed: several hundred new media outlets were founded. Although not all of them survived, up to date there are more than 400 media outlets, many more than the small market of just three million people can digest and finance – a strong sign, that media in Mongolia is not necessarily seen as a business to make money for the owners, but rather serves other interests. (See Context Politics and Economy)
Romo-Murphy, Eila, The historical development of the Mongolian media landscape, PhD, Finland 2010
Press Institute of Mongolia, Mongolian Media Today, 2016, Ulaanbaatar
Mongolian Ways, A Brief Mongolian History, (n.d.)
Michal Kohn, Dateline Mongolia – An American Journalist in Nomad’s Land, RDR Books, USA, 2007
Zorig Foundation, Nation First, Self-Interest Last, (n.d.)