The following is an interview with the Executive Director of the Press Institute of Mongolia and journalism PhD, M.Munkhmandakh, about current condition and pressing issues in Mongolian journalism.
-You have majored in journalism and acquired your doctoral degree in public media science in Germany. It has been 15 years since you started working in Mongolian news and media sector. If you assess the current Mongolian journalism with the western journalism standards, which you have studied closely, what would the results show?
-The development of journalism in Mongolia is a window to current social condition in our country. To be honest, a journalism filled with paid news and journalists that serves personal interests of certain figures without any professional principles and standards is flourishing in Mongolia. The reason is that corruption has spread everywhere and there is no set benchmark of morality in our society.
Today, Mongolian press sector is suffering from a large number of low skilled personnel, the results of the disorder in education sector caused by the transition into free-market in 1990s. Journalists don’t fall from the sky, they are products of their society.
Journalism differs from other sectors in that journalists’ work is transparent to the public and they are likely to face more criticism. Journalists also have a more direct impact on society than others in either positive and negative ways.
-Then are you saying that Mongolian journalism will not start anew unless the society improves?
-Journalism is an inseparable part of society, and the public receives a wide range of information from journalism which serves to increase their knowledge and education. In other words, you could say that the press creates its own world and people live and make decisions within it. As a result, the war for power in journalism is constant. The press has no other option but to select what to report, as it is impossible to report everything that is going on without a stop. As a result of the selection, certain parts of life can be left out of the public awareness. Or some stories and events might be reported in a way that is different from reality.
But the public has the basic right to be updated with truthful information about the type of world and society they are living in. The state must work to protect this right. For instant, it must create and protect the environment and framework where the press is able to publish truthful information without being influenced by someone’s personal interests and manipulation.
In addition, the state is also responsible for protecting its people’s rights to receive a wide range of news in all areas, from as many sources as possible, and filter it by themselves and form their own opinions. This is the reason that we must talk about the freedom of the press and pluralism. It is said that the healthy development of journalism is based on three things. They are; state policies, society and a healthy market structure.
-How is the government of Mongolia fulfilling their responsibilities to the press, in your opinion?
-I think that the core purpose of any state policy, management and activity must be directed for the public interests, by protecting them and providing an environment where they can lead a healthy lifestyle and develop. But unfortunately, it seems that law makers only put their efforts towards increasing their own power and private businesses, instead of the public’s.
Of course there are politicians and government officials who honestly serve their nation and citizens without a doubt. However, common image of politicians are corrupt. If our government was different, many regulations that support the public’s right to express their opinion and receive information would’ve been implemented already.
-What regulations for instance?
-There are many. I don’t understand those who say that laws are not necessary in the press sector. Whether it is called the Law on Freedom of the Press or not is not important. What we need is a comprehensive regulation that enables the press to develop and serve the public.
For instance, we have a postal service problem. Why can’t there be a state policy that ensures swift delivery of newspapers and journals in a country that has vast lands.
It is obvious that press organizations in provinces can’t survive with the current demand of newspapers as half of Mongolia’s population is living in the capital city. But it is state responsibility to protect the rights of provincial residents to receive new information without a delay just as the capital city residents receive. Therefore, the state should address this problem.
Mongolia can learn from Austria’s Act on Transparency of Media Cooperation. It aims to create greater transparency in media announcements by the government or other public organizations. The institutions concerned are required to publish the information, including the total amount paid to each media company that published it, on a quarterly basis, according to the act. It was adopted to prevent the fact that government investment for advertisement might become an instrument to influence the press.
One of the reasons that a fair press market isn’t practiced here is due to unwillingness of our country to operate businesses or even learn operate them in a proper and legitimate standard. Journalists are afraid of transparency themselves. They are accustomed to taking financial support from businesses and politicians. It even seems to me now that the state is even trying to maintain the current weakness in journalism and manipulate public opinion instead of encouraging fair competition, independence and transparency of the press.
-Then why do you think journalists are remaining silent? I think that they are very powerful people that can deliver groundbreaking news report and attract decision makers’ attention. But it seems it is not that common for them to do this. Do you think that they are afraid to speak out or don’t want change?
-There’s a saying that you could kill a fly and a high-ranking official with a newspaper, which implies that journalists can speak out or fight with power holders as much as they want to for their professional interests. But it is not what it seems here. It is true that journalists speak out sometimes, but mostly when their financial sources are threatened. But I don’t remember a single time when journalists spoke out about a proper press environment to learn and work better, or demanding improvement in professional responsibilities, press ethics and public trust in journalism. Our journalists are too obedient.
First of all, journalists aren’t united in a fight for their professional rights and interests. Press unions and associations are supposed to represent the interests of the public and empower journalists to exercise their rights to report. If these organizations were of great impact in journalism, actions against third party interference will be more effective. But unions and associations haven’t set their directions and goals clearly, and member journalists are lacking skills to realize the real issues facing journalism and find ways to tackle them.
They misunderstanding that “newsroom independence” is all about being out of their director’s interference, and “relieving journalism from commercial-based content” means that no advertisements must be published. But that is not what these are about. What’s more, awareness and knowledge of journalists about professional interests, journalistic values and integrity is very poor. There is basically no curricula that strictly educate and train journalists on standards of journalistic duties, responsibilities, values and ethics, as well as no newsroom that gives practical experience of what they have learnt in universities.
-Issues surrounding journalists who established their own media company have been debated much lately. There were even talks about banning them from practicing journalistm. What do you think about it?
–First, it doesn’t matter what job an owner of any company did before establishing a new company. He or she can still be reporting news and working as other journalists after starting a media company. But once they become owners of a business, they inevitably become businessmen with an aim to spend less manpower and earn more profit which conflicts with journalist interests.
Recently, several Mongolian journalists visited the Union of German Journalists and asked a few questions. The union accepts only active journalists as members and aims to protect the interests of journalists. When asked how they differentiate between journalists that are businessmen, and ordinary journalists, they said journalists collect, write and spread their news for a living. They added that they check financial income source or employment contracts of journalists before accepting members if necessary in order to identify journalists.
Secondly, I don’t understand the talk about “banning businessmen-journalists from their media company.” Of course there must be a legitimate regulation in any nation that protects an individual’s business rights, but it is also lawful for countries to prevent media companies from deceiving the public or providing false information.
-But there are quite a lot of people who think that it is not the right time to enforce such legal regulations in Mongolian journalism. What are your thoughts on the matter?
-Then how long should we wait until that right time comes? How far can we go when the public’s distrust in Mongolian journalism reaches an all time high and journalism is no longer valued?
It is clear that policy makers have no intention to contribute in a democratic press development. We must not wait for that intention to spark someday. As I have mentioned before, state policies, market structure and society are the main factors that influence the press development.
But there are no supportive state policies or market structure in our country. So the society remains the only hope for us. In other words, journalists and those who work for the press must join together, unite their voices and refuse to be a puppet for someone else.
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