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PUBLIC AND PRIVATE MEDIA IN MONGOLIA: SHARED SHAME
Here I would like to talk about three topics, which create conflict in the Mongolian media.
First, the legal situation and lack of transparency of ownership of private media put public and private media in a position of almost being enemies of each other. There is no way to talk about shared responsibility.
Second, the financial instability and small market size in Mongolia puts public and private media in somewhat of a dependent situation which we call “paid journalism”. There is not much opportunity to be a true journalist.
Third, many years of being legally vulnerable has put Mongolian journalists in a situation of being disinterested in developing their professionalism and ethical standards. There is no way for them to be proud of themselves, to be ethical or true to their profession.
Let me explain all of these one by one.
1. Why there is no way to talk about shared responsibility?
Media, especially the central, government controlled radio and television, used to be a very strong propaganda weapon for one particular party in Mongolia, and that was the MPRP - Mongolian Peoples Revolutionary Party, the former communist party. When the democratic revolution took place 20 years ago, the only thing the winning party, the MPRP, didn’t want to change was media ownership. Until 1996, when democrats first won an election, 6 years after the democratic revolution, there was not any private television or daily newspaper in the country. Three months after the MPRP lost its power in 1996, the first private television station, channel 25 television, began broadcasting. Also, the first private daily newspaper “Unoodor” or "Today" was born almost at the same time. Both had one ownership group and these were the most influential leaders in the MPRP.
So actually former communists were the first to create media pluralism in Mongolia, not because they realized media’s freedom, but because by law the winning democrats now started to control the state-owned central radio, television, and daily newspapers, and the MPRP needed their own weapon to hunt new democrats down.
From this beginning, private media in Mongolia had a very narrow purpose. Today the owners of all commercial television stations have strong ties to politicians. The mindset of politicians in Mongolia, who believe that the media is only a propaganda weapon, hasn’t changed at all during the last 20 years of transition.
The reason I’m saying this was that even though the democrats, whose slogan was to support press freedom, won in the 1996 parliamentary election, they still didn’t want the central radio, television, and daily newspapers to be independent. Whether Democrats or MPRP, they are politicians, and they want these propaganda tools.
Then in 2000, the Democrats lost the election and with that loss, they lost control of the central radio and television as well. From there, their fight against the status of the central radio and television network began, along with a desire to have their own media network.
That, I can say, was one of the main causes of the mushrooming number of private television stations.
A perfect example is that as the next parliamentary election nears in 2012, another two private television channels are about to open, and that will make 30 the total number of private television channels in Mongolia’s small sized market. Almost all of these private television channels have but one purpose and that is to serve their owner's political agendas.
Here I want to show part of the final report on last year’s presidential election monitoring; it is from one of the watchdog NGOs on media ethics, Globe International Mongolia:
Approaching the voting date of the Presidential Election in 2009, activity of the election campaigns had intensified. The Globe International NGO covered the last two weeks of media campaigning by the candidates via 5 TV channels (one public, four private) observing 1,324 hours’ coverage. The NGO summarized their conclusions on the monitoring as follows:
• The private TV channels did not provide an equal opportunity to the candidates
• The private TV channels presented one-sided, polarized and biased information on the candidates.
• News programs turned into election advertisements; and almost half of news coverage at private tv channels that we monitored presented paid-materials.
* During the private TV news programs, positive information about candidate for President, Enkhbayar was 83.1 percent and negative information on him was only 3.1 percent. Meanwhile, positive information about candidate Elbegdorj was 51.4 percent and negative information -33.1 percent. If comparing negative information about the two candidates, the difference is 10 times.
• Mongolian National Public Broadcasting Television performed its duty properly and ethically compared with other commercial TV channels.
In Mongolia some of the current general laws and regulations relating to media reporting during the election campaign apply equally to both public and private media: for example, provisions relating to "blackout" periods before the vote or the coverage of opinion polls. However, the air time limitation applies only to public media, not to private media. That’s why, during the election campaign, private TV channels can devote all of their air time for one particular candidate or party if they can, while MNB - the Public Broadcaster - only devotes 5-7% of its daily air time (during the last election, it was 7%).
Therefore, the effort of the one and only public TV station to be balanced is diluted by 20 something private TV stations’ unruly program policy, and in the final analysis, voters loose their right to have balanced reporting on the candidates and issues because of this conflicting situation.
The essence of a free media environment is that broadcasters and journalists are not told what they may, or may not, say or write. The essence of private broadcasting is being opportunistic and making money, especially during the election campaigns where lots of cash can be distributed in a short period of time. These two essences didn't find their balance in the media field of Mongolia, and unless a law on broadcasting is passed that can regulate this situation, nothing will ever change. We will see how this plays out in the 2012 election campaign.
2. Why does the financial instability or small market size puts public and private media in a much dependent situation?
As I stated above, private television channels’ purpose is not for the development of the television industry, or media pluralism, or making money on advertisements. According to the survey, the total advertising capacity in Mongolia is about 10 million dollars.
If one divides this number into 17 broadcast channels + 13 cable channels, the average monthly revenue is only $27700.
($10 000 000 : 12 months = $833 333.
$833 333 : 30 channels = $27 777)
If you compare this monthly income from advertisements with the total cost of employees’ salaries, (let’s say each station’s average number of employee is 50, and their monthly salary is $400, so the total fund is $20 000) the difference will be just $7 777.
So it is obvious that there is no way that this much revenue can make private television stations financially viable.
- So their content has to be converted into paid materials.
- Making original content gets expensive, so they prefer to fill their time with unlicensed movies, entertainment shows, and soap operas because they are free or cheap.
- Hiring professional experienced journalists who have skills and strong ethics is expensive, so they prefer young journalists, or students who can just covers press conferences, workshops etc. When they cover serious topics, they often make serious mistakes, and when hauled into court as a result, they often lose their case. Let me show a final report on defamation cases study by Globe International NGO with the support of the US Embassy in Mongolia.
In total, 39 civil defamation cases were heard by the Mongolian courts in 2008, and 21 were against media and journalists. In 71.4% of civil defamation cases, the media and journalists lost and only in 9.5%, did they win.
At MNB, the financial situation also puts us in a dependent situation. The budget is discussed in parliamentary session each year, so it requires lobbying members of parliament twice a year, and during the lobbying most members ask for favor which are mostly to be shown on public television’s prime time news or talk shows. We have 76 members in the parliament, and imagine how much time we are forced to devote to them. It is true that MNB serves politicians a lot, covers them wherever they go, whatever they do. So this financial instability in both public and private media gives us a SHARED SHAME, not a shared responsibility for public interest or media ethics.
3. Why journalists are not proud of themselves for being ethical or true to their profession
We have both criminal and civil defamation laws against journalists. We have laws on state secrets, and no one knows what is secret until you violate the law. The list of secrets is secret. Khafka!! . However, up to now the right to protect the source of information is not legalized in Mongolia. Every case of being in court on this matter puts journalists in jail or sees them heavily fined.
There is no relationship between gaining public trust and gaining market size. In other words, there is no cash award for being professional, nor is there a cash penalty for being unethical. For example, two newspapers cover the same story. One reveals corruption, being true and professional, the other publishes paid for material from the company or authority. The company or authority brings the other newspaper into court saying the newspaper revealed some state secret. That newspaper has a very good chance of being found guilty. The most unfortunate part is that this situation has no effect on sales because the subscription process is mostly automatic with agreements from big companies, government organizations and political parties. Here you can see which one is "awarded" and which one got "penalty".
This has been the situation for the last 20 years, and more and more journalists prefer to cover easy events such as press conferences and workshops and their backsides, instead of covering serious stories such as corruption.
Conclusion and recommendation
Public or private, the media is not a clothing or construction business. It has a strong influence on the public mind and it touches people’s daily lives. So we must have the same responsibilities. We have to share it equally. The problem is that the best intentions can't remedy this situation because we in Mongolian do not have a long tradition or much experience in democratic culture.
So last spring a group of people joined a committee that was organized by the president's office to work on creating a draft law on media and broadcasting and had several discussions on the topic. This draft, if passed into law, will provide a shared responsibility for media ethics, wide access to public documents, media self-regulation and hopefully, this changed legal situation will serve to encourage journalists to be professional, and skillful in investigative reporting.
Where the media is strong, there will be a less corrupted and healthier society. That is what we journalists, we Mongolians want, that is what shared responsibility is about. Keep your fingers crossed for us.
Thank you for your attention.