Since the return to power of the former Communist Party, many journalists in Mongolia have complained about aggressive government monitoring of the press. Meanwhile, government officials have been critical of lax journalism standards. The quarrel is helping to refine the ongoing debate in Mongolia on how a free press and government interact.
In a country accustomed to more than 70 years of Soviet-style rule, where the line is drawn in determining editorial content, as well as who does the drawing, remain controversial questions. Today almost 10 years since the collapse of the Communist system in Mongolia -- it is not unusual for the Mongolian press to publish reports that contain graphic violence and sexually explicit content.
The former Communist Party, which now calls itself the Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party, swept to power in July, winning 71 out of the 76 seats at stake in the country's parliamentary election. In September, Justice Ministry officials appointed a committee to examine all media outlets to ensure that they are in compliance with regulations that outlaw pornography, alcohol and tobacco advertisements, and "propagandizing of violence." Mongolia's tax office also has begun checking taxation records.
Though threats were initially made to close newspapers that violated the laws, newly appointed Justice Minister Ts. Nyamdorj now says the courts will decide punishment for media outlets that are found in violation of the law. The wide-scale check-up may just serve as a warning, he added, to encourage a "responsible press." Nyamdorj has said it is his "responsibility" to "instill order in society." Journalists counter that market forces should impose their own order. Any other attempt to do so, they add, is tantamount to repression of free speech.
"This government's policy on media is very similar to methods of the communist era. This is why we are criticizing them," says R. Khaadbaatar, a 29-year-old publisher and president of the Mongolian Newspapers Association. "The most important thing to them is not the pornography. It's just an attempt to see what will happen if they close down some media. If the media doesn't do anything about it, then later, they can close any media for any reason."
Nyamdorj denies that the government seeks to control media coverage, and has promised more access to government documents than journalists have had in the past. "I don't understand intrigues against me saying that I am cracking down on freedom of press," says the 44-year-old Nyamdorj. "Everybody who breaks the law will be responsible for that. The only difference between the Democrats and Communists is that the communists enforce laws that are already in effect."
It's true enough that Nyamdorj's party isn't the only one to monitor the press. The laws on pornography and violence were passed when the democrats were in power, and a similar check-up was initiated by the Justice Ministry, again under the democrats' authority, two years ago. Threats of closure were levied but nothing ever came of them.
So far, officials appear to be focusing on sensational tabloids that violate violence and porn laws, rather than on politically oriented publications, including those critical of government policies.
But the tabloids aren't the only ones fretting about the check ups. Most of the major dailies are also concerned. Last year, the two major state-owned dailies were auctioned off to private owners. All four major dailies have kept their political affiliations.
"The true reason of the check up was to make us afraid. Maybe they wouldn't have closed the papers, but they want to give us a warning that if you don't listen to us, we can do whatever we want," says B. Tsenddoo, a top editor at Udryin Sonin (The Daily News), formerly Ardyn Erkh (the People's Right), which serves the Democratic party and was the major paper of record until July's election swept the party out of office.
Many media observers are reluctant to characterize the debate as purely a government attempt to control a free press. They say the government's complaints have some merit, adding that the quality of journalism in Mongolia is poor. Some say that a serious discussion about media responsibility is overdue.
In 1990, there were only a few newspapers, all belonging to the ruling communist government (the main periodical was called Unen, or Truth, styled after Russia's Pravda). These days there are hundreds of newspapers, including four competing dailies, and a handful of independent television and radio stations. Yet the explosion in quantity has thus far not been matched by improvements in the quality of reporting, some say.
"There are so many subjects that the free press can be writing about. There is so much poverty, corruption, irresponsible decision-making around. Why are these subjects not explored?" says Ts. Dashdondov, president of the Mongolian Free Democratic Journalists Association, and a staunch free press advocate. "It doesn't make sense just to talk emptily about free press. It's been ten years, it's time to talk about quality journalism -- journalism that is humane, ethical and cultural."
B. Odsuren, the chief trainer at the Press Institute of Mongolia, shares Dashdondov's views about media development. The Press Institute has worked for years to instill fact-based concepts of reporting and writing, and is currently assisting government agencies in checking the compliance of media outlets to existing legislation. Odsuren and other teachers at the institute are frustrated at the lack of responsibility on the part of journalists. "We want to help these newspapers make better news," she says. "We do support a free press. But this is an irresponsible press."
Perhaps the most accurate statement of where the country is in terms of media freedom came during a recent news conference given by Nyamdorj. He asserted the government's position, and the journalists asserted their own in no uncertain terms. That the debate is so public and out-in-the-open is a sign that, although the issues concerning press freedoms and responsibilities have not been resolved, they haven't been squashed either.
Leah Kohlenberg has worked as a journalist for ten years, previously for small daily newspapers in the U.S., Time Magazine based in Hong Kong, and ABCNEWS.com. She is currently a freelance journalist and trainer based 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. Nomin Lkhagvasuren is a freelance journalist in Mongolia.