The big chill: Shepherding press freedom

By Barry Lowe, Gemini News Service, New Internationalist, issue 297, December 1998

The man who sells newspapers on Peace Avenue in Ulan Bator resembles a shepherd tending his flock. On some days he has 40 to 50 separate titles spread across the pavement like a monochrome quilt. When the wind blows in from the steppes, he weighs down each pile with a chunk of concrete and on snowy days he walks up and down flicking ice flakes off the pages.

Mongolians embraced press freedom as part of the 1990 pro-democracy movement. After suppression of the press for 70 years, they were soon producing more newspapers per head than anywhere else in the world: a nation of 2.5 million people had 550 new publications.

Some have floundered and many journals are of poor quality, featuring sensational rumours and sometimes pornography. Proposed changes to media law which are to be debated in parliament include censorship of pornography, new licensing regulations and an end to the current rationing of imported newsprint. There are also calls for restrictions on articles that defame religious institutions, a widening of defamation laws so that publishers as well as authors can be sued and a mandatory ethical code of conduct for journalists and publishers with penalties for infringement.

The Free Democratic Journalists’ Association President Tsendiin Dashdondov opposes any censorship. ‘The freer the press, the healthier the nation,’ he argues. But, he admits: ‘The image of the free press has certainly been damaged by unqualified, untalented journalists publishing newspapers and periodicals of poor journalistic quality.’

Dashdondov is anxious not to give those who seek to control the press a reason to take legal action and reintroduce censorship. While pay in the profession can be as low as 28,000 tugrik ($60) a month, one journalist was recently ordered to pay 12 million tugrik ($2,570) in damages.

Journalists have complained that government officials are a long way from embracing openness in the way they respond to media enquiries. Most requests receive hostile responses and blank refusals to provide information.

In Erdenet, the site of a large copper mine which is Mongolia’s main export earner, local reporters seek to investigate environmental damage caused by the mine. Journalists say they face a brick wall when trying to get information from mine officials and local authorities.

J Erdenetsogt, a reporter with the state-owned Mongolian television, aired his frustration at a recent media conference: ‘It’s one thing for Western journalists to come and talk to us about freedom of information, but what can we do when the officials simply don’t respect this idea?’