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Mongolia has been rehearsing democracy for a good 20 years. The law guarantees freedom of words and press. In practice, however, the situation is different: Politicians and businessmen use the media for their own purposes.

Saturday evening in the Mongolian capital Ulan Bator. Whoever turns on the television at this time has the choice between several news programmes, documentaries, talk shows, sports reports as well as countless series, films and music programmes. Mongolia has around 450 radio stations, newspapers and Internet portals.

For an emerging country with just under three million inhabitants, this diversity is remarkable at first glance. Especially since Mongolia was communist until about 20 years ago and the media were controlled by the state. The Mongolian Press Institute, a non-governmental organization, accompanied the transformation of the media. Munkhmandakh, the director of the Press Institute, tells of the beginnings.

Munkhmandakh : “At the beginning of the 90s there was no real journalism. Everyone just wrote something: lots of invented stories, rumours, defamations from this or that political group. At that time, the survival of the free media was on the brink. Because at first there were no laws that guaranteed this freedom. Journalists had no rights whatsoever to information from the authorities and could not properly fulfil their task of informing citizens.”

In 1998, freedom of the press was first enshrined in law. In 2005, the former socialist state broadcaster was transformed into a public broadcaster. This was – at least on paper – a significant step forward in the democratization of the media.

With the press freedom index only in the middle

The Press Institute is located in the north of Ulan Bator, on the large ring road leading around the city centre; housed in a white, inconspicuous building from the socialist era. On the ground floor there is a printing office, seminar rooms, offices and a small library.

The director is a small woman with a pageboy cut, glasses and red lips. She studied journalism in Leipzig during the GDR era and experienced the turning point there. Later she worked for Deutsche Welle in Bonn and was a guest speaker in the Bundestag. In 1998 she returned to Mongolia.

Munkhmandakh: “There were so many problems to solve as far as the media was concerned. That’s why I thought that working for the Press Institute was the best way to contribute.

Today, an American from an environmental organization is a guest at the organization. She talks about renewable energy. About 15 journalists between their early twenties and late forties listen attentively.

Environmental problems are currently one of the much-discussed issues in the country. Mongolia has found huge deposits of mineral resources, especially coal and copper. Now they are to be mined on a grand scale and people are worried about their unique steppe landscape.

In addition, the capital Ulan Bator has grown strongly in recent years. Especially in winter the air is bad. The outdated power plants spit thick soot clouds into the sky. More than a third of the city’s 1.3 million inhabitants still heat with coal stoves.

Independent media could report on the opportunities and risks of the raw material boom. They could look the state, as well as private interest representatives on the fingers and inform the public. But that hardly works in Mongolia so far, says journalism student Enkhchimeg.

Enkhchimeg: “In class we hear a lot about the standards media have to meet in developed countries. We’re still a long way from that at the moment.

For example, almost every television station and every newspaper belongs to a politician. And of course you can’t say anything negative about him or his party. Such dependencies slow down the development of our press. Everyone knows that, but so far nothing has changed. If you ask whether there really is freedom of the press here, I would rather say: “No.”

On the press freedom index of Reporters Without Borders, Mongolia is only in midfield, in 98th place out of a total of 179 countries. For almost all Mongolian media makers, self-censorship is part of everyday life. The 26-year-old Khaliun also experienced this. Until recently, the young journalist worked for the business news of a TV station. The main owner: a Mongolian bank – and the marketing manager of this bank also manages the station.

Khaliun: “He wanted to have the questions submitted before we went to an interview. I had never heard anything like it before. The manager of a media company wants to see the interview questions? That’s ridiculous. That’s censorship.”

Most media representatives are involved in the tricks of the media, politics and business. Khaliun did not want to put up with censorship. She complained and discussed the content with the editor-in-chief. It wasn’t long before she was fired. Now she is sitting in a café with her friend Ariunaa and thinking about what to do next.

Ariunaa is also a television reporter. She has had very similar experiences.

Ariunaa: “Once I made a contribution about a construction company. She just occupied a public playground, destroyed the playground equipment and started building. We filmed and interviewed the residents. But when we got back to the station, we heard that the construction company had called. Our marketing manager came into the newsroom and said, ‘You can’t broadcast this, we have an advertising contract with this company’.

Unlike Khaliun, Ariunaa resigned herself to not being allowed to cover everything. She has acquired a certain cynicism.

Ariunaa: “I’m already used to it. There are about 40 television stations in Ulan Bator – it’s the same everywhere. The marketing department takes care of the advertisements and they pay our salaries. So it can decide too.”

A year ago she changed to another station. Ariunaa isn’t her real name, but she doesn’t want to name it for fear of losing her job – not even that of her new employer. The main owner of her station is a well-known politician. To get this job, she first had to let herself in for his political ambitions. Last year, Mongolia held parliamentary elections. He ran for a seat and let the journalists campaign for himself. Ariunaa was assigned to one of these election PR teams.

Ariunaa: “I booked airtime for my boss at other TV stations and told the journalists when he had appointments to report on. And then they sent their camera teams there. For example, he met with the citizens of his constituency, listened to their problems, promised to help them, and so on.”

Whether it’s television, newspapers or radio, during election campaigns most of what appears in the media is hidden election advertising.

The problem lies in the system. The stations earn the most money during election campaigns. This is the only way they can finance themselves. Normally one second of advertising costs only 2000 Mongolian Tugrik, about one Euro. During election campaigns the price is six times as high. But companies also pay for reports. One minute costs about 300,000 Tugrik, which is about 165 Euro.

Often purchased reports are sent

Nevertheless, journalists are trying to get serious reporting off the ground. After 20 years with the public station MNB, the journalist Munkhtur founded his own station last year: MNC. The abbreviation stands for Mongolian News Channel. Munkhtur wants to establish it as a news channel.

Munkhtur: “We want to design our program professionally, with economic, political and international topics. We also try to classify events. This is very rare in Mongolia. Most broadcasters have moderators who simply read out news. But what is behind it, why something happens, how it started, they can’t explain.”

Serious reporting is particularly necessary in these times. Mongolia is experiencing another upheaval because of its mineral resources – this time an economic one. After the end of socialism, the economy lay on the ground for almost 15 years. Now a lot of money is flowing into the country, because numerous international mining companies want to invest.

The public reacts nervously to the mine projects. People fear that the mining companies are exploiting the land and that the income will only benefit the already rich and powerful. Rumours and speculations are circulating.

Actually, the media would have the task to take a close look at what deals the politicians make with the mining companies and what happens with the money. But that doesn’t work well enough, says Munkhtur.

Munkhtur: “There is always only one source mentioned. The journalists ask a minister or a member of parliament and of course he says: Everything is great, the government does a good job and we will all get rich. Liar! Nobody explains how we actually want to do it. I keep telling my editors that we have to focus on the facts, just the facts. Always check them against several sources! Produces credible news!

But in order to finance the serious content, Munkhtur also uses dubious means. Just like others, he sends purchased reports.

Munkhtur: “For example, we shot a twenty-minute documentary about a mining company. About how she takes care of old people in the country who live alone. The company paid us two million Tugrik for this documentary.”

That’s the equivalent of around 1100 euros. He can cover the monthly salary of two to three editors. Munkhtur sees this pragmatically.

Munkhtur: “I don’t really like such purchased reports, but I need them to earn money. In the future I will try to find another solution.

In the meantime, however, Munkhtur’s plans have taken a completely different turn. After the Democratic Party won the parliamentary elections last year, he got a call from the new Prime Minister Altankhuyag. He offered to work for him as a PR consultant.

Munkhtur: “I have known Altankhuyag for over 20 years. At that time he was a professor at the National University. We’ve stayed in touch over the years. After the election I sent him congratulations and he called and asked: ‘Can we meet? Of course, he is the prime minister. I don’t think anyone would say no. So I went to the government palace. He said: ‘The press department of the previous government is in a miserable condition, completely old-fashioned. There is no spokesman, the journalists do not get information. Please take care of it.’ So I became advisor to the prime minister.”

Munkhtur calls that promotion. Meanwhile, he is not only an advisor, but also a government spokesman. Nevertheless, he keeps his station for now. Munkhmandakh, the director of the Press Institute, is not surprised that a successful journalist like Munkhtur changes sides:

Munkhmandakh: “I don’t know of a single person who has managed to resist the temptation to enter politics. Anyone who is good is quickly discovered by a politician and lured with a good job, such as becoming a consultant or speaker. There’s an ambition among journalists that I don’t understand.”

Munkhmandakh, too, has already had offers to switch to politics. But that’s out of the question for them. She is worried about the future of the media in Mongolia, especially their credibility.

Munkhmandakh: “Readers and viewers now know that media entrepreneurs represent certain interests. That’s why the credibility of reporting has fallen sharply in recent years. When journalists report on corruption or other grievances, citizens no longer believe them. After all, it could be that only one person is pursuing his or her own interests. I find this development very dangerous. Improving our media system is important for the development of our democracy as a whole. I firmly believe in democracy”.