Kh.Naranjargal raises concerns about media censorship in Mongolia

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Millions of people across the globe observe World Press Freedom Day on May 3 each year, to raise awareness about the importance of the freedom of the press, to remind governments of their duty to respect and uphold the right to freedom of expression and to evaluate press freedom worldwide.

President of Globe International NGO Kh.Naranjargal delves into the significance of the freedom of the press in the following interview, in observance of the 27th World Press Freedom Day, which was held under the theme “Critical Minds for Critical Times: Media’s Role in Advancing Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies”.

Looking at this year’s theme for World Press Freedom Day, it seems that the media will face an uphill battle for viability. How is the freedom of the press in Mongolia?

This year’s theme for World Press Freedom Day is “Critical Minds for Critical Times: Media’s Role in Advancing Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies”, which is linked to Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 16, which is to promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all, and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels. It’s a fact that the media is in need of critical minds now that the media and press across the globe are facing a critical time.

Many fake news stories were spread during opinion polling for the United Kingdom’s European Union membership referendum vote and the presidential campaign of Donald Trump, which put the media at risk. Some researchers are describing this time as the “post-truth era” and most of them believe that journalism is at risk and facing a crisis.


 

…Even though free and independent press organizations are companies like any other, it’s important for them to remain transparent, open, and ethical, because media is a business related to the rights of individuals to seek and receive – as well as to impart – information and ideas of all kinds. No one should take advantage of it for their own self-interests…


 

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s Representative for Freedom of the Media, the Organization of American States Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information made a joint declaration on freedom of expression, “fake news”, disinformation, and propaganda. The declaration focuses on taking note of the growing prevalence of disinformation and propaganda in the media, and reestablishing independent journalism by encouraging media professionals to be responsible and follow media ethics. This issue applies to Mongolian journalism too. In particular, slander and insults have been hot topics for political news. Articles related to freedom of expression have been strengthened considerably under the new Election Law.

During last year’s parliamentary election, 11 news websites were shut down for 24 hours following a complaint being made by one of the candidates. In general, the Mongolian media and press are too easily influenced by politicians, and the owners of most media organizations are high-ranking politicians. Due to this, policymakers and researchers are racking their brains to find a solution to develop free, independent, and pluralistic media in the future.

 Media professionals stirred up controversy over Member of Parliament Ts.Garamjav’s proposal to apply high penalties for journalists and media organizations for defamation and insult. Can you share your opinion on this?

Mongolian law and policymakers attempted to distort the media by applying too much censorship to the freedom of expression through the law. The joint declaration I mentioned before shows that this is not an issue to be determined by the law. The Constitution states that Mongolia will comply with the universally recognized norms and principles of international laws and mechanisms when passing a new law.

The UN Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review Working Group examined Mongolia’s human rights conditions and made recommendations for the freedom of expression in May 2015. The working group recommended making legislation on the freedom of expression consistent with international standards; to omit articles related to defamation and insult in the Criminal Code and to incorporate them into the Civil Law, and to provide an environment where journalists and human rights advocates can work peacefully and safely. Omitting articles related to defamation and insult from the Criminal Code and incorporating them into the Civil Law was previously included in the UN Human Rights Council’s 2011recommendations.


 

…It’s obviously wrong to slander others, but imposing a penalty or punishment for doing so will turn into political censorship…


 

It’s obviously wrong to slander others, but imposing a penalty or punishment for doing so will turn into political censorship. Mongolia made progress by transferring articles from the Criminal Code to the Law on Conflicts, but this brought my attention to two things. First, lawmakers are discussing imposing too high a fine for committing such violations. Other countries ensure that fines are not so high that they would affect the independence of the media. If media organizations had to pay a fine of 100 million MNT for defamation or insults, as was discussed during a recent government session, the Mongolian media would be put under economic censorship.

Second, it’s unclear who will determine and impose such penalties. Exactly who this “authorized person” they’re talking about is and how cases of defamation will be proven is vague. This eventually turns into political censorship, as such articles on defamation and insult are used by powerful people to silence publications that are harmful to them and to change public opinion. The Law on Media Freedom, enacted in 1998, prohibits all forms of censorship.


 

…A democratic society must ban any form of censorship and guarantee the freedom of the press…


 

 Why is it important to protect the freedom of the press?

I will not say that journalists are “white doves of peace” who don’t do anything wrong and that everyone else are “crows”. So far, I haven’t even expressed my own opinion – I’ve only talked about international standards and legislation. The reason why the freedom of the press needs to be protected is because it’s a matter of people’s freedom. We all know that having a free and independent media is one of the key principles of democracy. Unlike what some people are saying, we’re not defending immoral and unethical journalists who work for others. Starting with the right to protect the confidentiality of their sources, journalists have various rights and privileges.

Journalists are referred to as watchdogs because they get information through the trust they gain from the public and report the information to a wider audience. However, it’s clear that media organizations, like us, are unable to operate independently since most of these organizations are connected to politicians and have high editorial censorship. Even so, media organizations self-regulate such things rather than having it regulated by the law. This means that media organizations have an “immunity system” to protect themselves from external influence.

 How many violations of the freedom of expression were recorded last year? Has Mongolia’s ranking for press freedom gone up or down in recent years?

Mongolia slipped by nine ranks to 69th place out of 180 countries in the 2016 Press Freedom Index released by Reporters Without Borders (RSF). Globe International has been monitoring violations of the freedom of expression since 2005. During this time, 519 violations of the rights of journalists and media organizations have been recorded. This doesn’t fully represent  Mongolia’s situation, as these violations are just ones that were reported to our organization or revealed to the public.

Last year, we received 63 reports of violations, most of which – specifically 57 percent – were offenses involving high-ranking politicians or government officials. In addition, 27 percent of these journalists received some kind of pressure from the court or a legal body, while 19 percent were sued and jailed.

I’d like to share another piece of information. A total of 16 cases of defamation and insult were recorded between 2002 and 2011, whereas, from 20012 to 2016, there were 22 cases of a media organization or professional being punished for this type of violation. As you can see, these cases are increasing every year. The public needs to understand that these sorts of challenges faced by journalists also concern the rights of media consumers and individuals.

 Can you tell us more about the self-regulation of media organizations?

Even though free and independent press organizations are companies like any other, it’s important for them to remain transparent, open, and ethical, because media is a business related to the rights of individuals to seek and receive – as well as to impart – information and ideas of all kinds. No one should take advantage of it for their own self-interests. A democratic society must ban any form of censorship and guarantee the freedom of the press. But even a media organization can’t escape supervision,  so it should have a self-regulating system. Newsrooms should have internal governance rules and a mechanism that enables them to internally resolve issues and complaints. They should at least have a policy on the publication and broadcasting of paid materials to meet the standards of ethical media. Next, media organizations should unite and establish a media council to remain independent from political influence. Our organization has founded this type of council. There’s also a way to allow the public to monitor and supervise media outlets. Mongolians don’t know about this at all.

The number of people receiving information from social media has been rapidly growing in recent years. Due to this, there have been attempts to find and punish people who try to mislead the public with fake news, disinformation, and propaganda. However, other democratic countries pay attention to improving people’s knowledge to prevent them from being deceived by fake news. In other words, it’s important to educate the public at all levels so that they don’t immediately believe something they read or see, and instead, think critically. Mongolian policymakers need to pay attention to launching international programs for this.

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