Twenty two-year old Munkhbayasgalan loved her job as a police reporter at Mongolia's most popular newspaper, the weekly tabloid Seruuleg (Alarm Clock). She would routinely stay up all night on publishing days to help get the paper out.
On one of those nights -- April 6, 1999 -- Munkhbayasgalan (called Baysa for short) left the newspaper's office to get coffee. But when she returned to the dark stairwell leading up to the office at about 10 p.m., a man grabbed her from behind. He slashed her hands with a razor blade and then drew the blade lightly across her neck, cheeks and forehead--just hard enough to leave feathery scars.
Chances are this was no random attack. Two months previously, Baysa had written a scathing article on a well-known politician. The week before the attack, the paper received an anonymous letter suggesting ominously that Baysa would be killed along with the weekly tabloid's editor, S. Bayarmunkh, and another young female reporter, J. Jargalsaikhan, who had accused the politician of attempted rape.
The story and its aftermath underscore the difficulties inherent in establishing a free press in a formerly totalitarian society. As Mongolia struggles with newfound market and democratic freedoms, the rights and responsibilities of free speech and free press are not precisely defined. Many Mongolian journalists have seen the end of Soviet-style rule as an excuse to play fast and loose with the truth, endangering what liberties they now have.
In her report, Baysa wrote that the legislator, O. Dashbalbar, held Jargalsaikhan hostage for several hours, attempting to rape her, and, after cutting his hand, trying to force her to drink his blood. The article referred to Dashbalbar as the "madman of parliament" and criticized his "bad breath."
That's probably not the type of story Mongolia's parliament was expecting when it passed legislation in August 1998 to "free the media of all state control." The law was another step in the country's evolution from Soviet satellite state to modern democracy.
From the outside, the changes have appeared relatively seamless. In reality, the transformation has been full of wrinkles. Over the past two years, government gridlock, the murder of Mongolia's most prominent democracy activist and the arrest of three legislators on bribery charges has combined to destabilize nascent democratic institutions. Likewise, the economy has struggled since 1990 to recover from bouts of severe unemployment, inflation and currency devaluation.
The media, too, have experienced trouble. In 1990, the government itself published all four of the country's newspapers. Today, there are hundreds of registered independent publications, and at least a dozen appear regularly on newsstands. But as Baysa's article, and the attack against her demonstrate, both journalists and politicians have yet to come to a clear understanding of how an independent press functions.
"I think it will take at least 10 more years" to establish a professional press, says Avirmed Oyungerel, the chief journalism teacher at the Press Institute of Mongolia (who is currently studying journalism at the University of Missouri on a Soros Fellowship). "We have to change the way of thinking, and the basic education system."
Some have criticized the August 1998 press law for its vague wording. It stated that by January 1, 1999, all government-owned newspapers would be "dismantled"--later defined as "privatized"--while state radio and television stations, as well as the national news agency, would be converted into "national public media" administered by an independent board of governors.
But more than a year after the privatization deadline, details of a conversion plan are still being hammered out. Parliament also has yet to decide how Mongolian TV and Radio should be run. One of the main debates has centered on whether politicians should be allowed to sit on the network's board of governors. In the latest version, some worry that control might be too concentrated in the hands of the board president - and with a critical election coming up this year, its not likely a decision will be made beforehand.
As for the privatization of state-owned newspapers, it was announced stock would be offered to all past and present employees, and the printing presses and other equipment would be put up for auction. But as of yet no auction has been held, and the old staff is still writing and producing the newspapers much like they did before. It hasn't helped that D. Battulga, the head of the committee drawing up the media regulations, was one of the three politicians arrested on bribery charges.
Perhaps more disturbing is the government's efforts to muzzle the new independent press. When democracy activist S. Zorig was brutally murdered just two months after the new media law was passed, the Justice Ministry said any paper that published anything other than official comments on the incident would be punished. Some papers broke the rule, but were not reprimanded.
Politicians are not the only ones acting inappropriately. Those in charge of printing new publications are also at fault, suggests Oyungerel. Publishers know what it takes to put out a responsible periodical, she says, "but they don't want to do it. It's hard work, and they are mostly concerned with making money." As a result, papers are riddled with factual errors and unsubstantiated rumor.
Baysa's article on Dashbalbar, now dead of liver problems, is a typical example. She stands by her story, but police have dismissed Jargalsaikhan's charges of unlawful confinement and rape. Meanwhile, Baysa admits her story lacked balance, adding that that instead of relying solely on her colleague's claims, she should have interviewed more sources before writing her article.
Today, the tension created by Baysa's article seems to have settled -- partly due to the recent death of Dashbalbar. Baysa gave up a full-time police bodyguard in the summer, and is now on the prestigious presidential beat. But the scars remain both physically and emotionally. She received more threatening phone calls in the attack's aftermath and the Daily News, a publication run by the same staff that last year produced the main government paper, has accused her of inflicting the wounds herself. "I don't think the new media law has created a free media," she says gloomily. "There is nothing in the new law to protect reporters."
Leah Kohlenberg has worked as a journalist for ten years, previously for small daily newspapers in the U.S. and Time Magazine based in Hong Kong and currently for ABCNEWS.com as a news producer in Seattle. She spent a year in Mongolia, first as a Knight Fellow training journalists, and then consulting with the local Soros Foundation, the Mongolian Foundation for Open Society, Media Program. Shes also trained journalists for the BBC and other organizations.