Counting the Cost of Journalism

I’m between flights, sitting in a Mexican cafe in San Francisco with a little extra time to catch up on the aftermath of the riots back home in Mongolia. I long to get back home quickly.

Here’s the latest, this time gathered from a variety of sites and minor info funneled back to me from our staff. Parliament is in a closed door session discussing the election and riots. Justice Minister Munhk-Orgil and Foreign Minister Oyun conducted a briefing for Ambassadors and made statements to the media. All is apparently quiet on the day after as tanks and large numbers of police made their rounds through the center portion of the city to guarantee calm. A small group of new protesters did gather downtown, but apparently in regret for what happened during the riots.

The MPRP HQ is all but destroyed. The Culture Palace, home to many Mongolian art treasures, was gutted by fire and many of its works looted.

5 people are dead. 108 police officers were injured. Nineteen have serious injuries. 221 protesters were injured, with 19 hospitalized. Security around embassies has been beefed up and foreign citizens have been warned to either remain home during the State of Emergency or restrict their movements.

Staff from State TV and Eagle TV were assaulted and injured by the rioters. Equipment was broken or destroyed. And for the purposes of this blog, this is where I want to make a comment.

Protests after Mongolian elections or controversial political decisions is nothing new. Some protesters have been known to get violent, as well as the police, but certainly nothing to the extent seen on July 1st. While Mongolian protesters have never before gone to such lengths (destroying buildings, killing and severely injuring people), there is something else that makes this protest different.

Mongolian protesters don’t attack journalists.

Both, foreign and domestic journalists were indiscriminately attacked by protesters. A Japanese and a British journalist had to be hospitalized. The offices of two newspapers were destroyed. State TV’s remote equipment was damaged by protesters early in the rioting. An Eagle TV cameraman was attacked and had to be taken to the hospital with leg injuries. Eagle TV journalists and cameramen were assaulted when trying to leave the roof of the democratic party headquarters and had to flee back to the roof to save their lives. As midnight approached the staff were still unable to escape and greatly feared for their safety. Various other journalists were threatened, and the offices and key staff of Eagle TV received numerous threats that required a security contingent to be put in place to protect the premises. Staff leaving for home had to be escorted by security for their protection.
Mongolian protesters don’t attack journalists.

There has been, until July 1st, a general understanding among people that Mongolian journalists, and especially those with Eagle TV, exist to tell the story of the people. Protesters have always tended to view journalists, especially Eagle TV journos, with some level of regard. When protests take place and clash with police as sometimes happens, journalists are usually left untouched (there are exceptions) so they can document and tell the story. In fact, up until July 1st the most significant offenses against journalists were usually by police attempting to prevent them from covering stories (which is illegal under Mongolian law).

But on July 1st journalists were indiscriminately targeted, even it appears, when it was clear that they were not political operatives or police officers. Charges of corruption against the Mongolian government and political parties aren’t anything new. Neither are charges of fraud in elections. Sour grapes seem to be a regular course in Mongolia’s political diet. Journalists have been viewed as an important part of maintaining Mongolia’s freedom, all the way back to the days of Eagle TV’s conception when a small group of political leaders asked AMONG Foundation to start the first independent TV station in Mongolia because “without an independent TV station we cannot maintain our freedom.”

July 1st crossed a line for Mongolian media so that even journalists, traditionally regarded with a “hands-off” approach by protesters are now left to fend for themselves, or take the risk of being attacked even when they are trying to tell the protester’s story. How significant is this? Police don’t attack journalists who are trying to tell their story. Prior to 9/11, even Osama Bin Laden didn’t attack journalists who came to interview him and tell his story.

Mongolian journalists have always complained bitterly about the government’s lack of cooperation when it comes to freedom of information, political influence/ownership in media, and party control of content. Everyone is waiting to see if the status quo that existed before the riots will be restored or if there will be new restrictions on media, since it is clear that some on the political landscape want to hold media party responsible for the riots. But now there is a new factor in the equation.

Democracy protesters may indiscriminately target independent media.

To that I can only say to my colleagues in the media: Congratulations. Welcome to democracy. You’ve just graduated to what many other media experience around the world. Now you will have to work even harder, and take even more risks, to get the story. From now on during tough and dangerous assignments you will have to decide what true journalistic independence and integrity is worth to you, and whether you will report fairly and objectively, even when you are being attacked from both sides.

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