Improving Freedom of the Press in Mongolia

Freedom of the press is central for Mongolian journalists like Tanan Myagmar, who works as a foreign relations officer for the official state-owned news agency. She recently returned to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital, after three weeks in the U.S. as a participant in the Leaders Advancing Democracy—Mongolia (LEAD Mongolia) program.

The program is a two year initiative run by World Learning, and funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), designed to support Mongolia’s next generation of democracy advocates. Myagmar took part in the program to get first-hand exposure to media in the U.S. with the aim of creating more open and transparent press in Mongolia.

Media organizations have flourished following the 1990 peaceful revolution ending communist rule in Mongolia, and there are now more than 400 print and broadcast media outlets. However, Myagmar says corruption within the political system and media is still rampant. “Mongolian journalism has a long way to go,” she says. “From publishing paid news plagiarism to bias reporting, journalism in Mongolia is still awash with unethical conduct and we urgently need to raise our professional standards,” she says.

A 2016 UNESCO report states that paid media content remains prevalent and points to anecdotal evidence that journalists are bribed. Myagmar says there’s also an unofficial agreement between many news organizations and prominent government officials to keep controversial issues out of the news. She fears that the country could backslide if this kind of practice continues. “I experienced during my coverage of the elections back in 2008 and 2012 how politicians exploited the loopholes of the campaign law that allowed them to buy the media and get illegally elected. The same nightmare scenario repeated itself during the 2016 election,” she says.

She adds that while journalists are aware of the situation, few are willing to take the personal risks necessary to challenge the status quo. “This has to be tamed, if not fully stopped. Otherwise if people keep being denied their rights for access to unbiased information and quality journalism, everything we have achieved in the [past] 27 years as a democratic country could vanish in a day.”

Myagmar says journalists are not protected by any laws, and many investigative journalists fear they may be heavily penalized for publishing independent reports. A 2014 report by MediaShift, an organization that offers insight and analysis of media around the world, including corruption within media, says Mongolia’s defamation laws criminalize defamation and slander, and fines run steep: journalists accused of defamation can be charged $6000 to $17,000.

Despite the difficulties, Myagmar is optimistic about the future. A new generation of journalists is emerging, and Myagmar says she believes they will change the state of the media, with a little support: “We need to equip these journalists with world-class education and an unshakable belief that what they do will make a difference.”

LEAD Mongolia is a two year initiative run by World Learning with funding from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), which aims to bring together aspiring leaders from Mongolia to the United States to learn about democracy, and how they can work together to tackle Mongolia’s most pressing issues, including corruption, poverty, discrimination, urbanization and the environment.

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