Fear & Free Media

“All fear societies are based on a certain degree of brainwashing. State-controlled television, radio, and newspapers glorify the actions of the regime’s leaders and incite their populations against those it deems to be enemies.”

The Case For Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror, has given me extra insight into the condition of media in Mongolia—and our mission of Faith and Freedom.

My ability to read the latest western books is limited by living in Mongolia (where’s a Barnes and Noblebaatar when you need one?) but during a recent trip to the States I stocked up with a good year’s supply of reading material. Sharansky’s book was my last pick-up; at the Denver airport while suffering through an 8-hour delay. Thank God for airport delays! The Case For Democracy, is one of the most insightful books on political freedom I’ve read.

You may remember from an earlier commentary that a recent analysis by Mongolia’s Press Institute and Globe International found that while there is sufficient media freedom for journalists to pursue their craft, there is, in practice, less freedom because of how ideological control of the media has developed over recent years. Keep in mind that Mongolia is a young democracy, without the foundation of Judeo-Christian traditions from which modern political freedom sprang (I explore this issue in my forthcoming book, Faith & Freedom: How the missionary principle facilitates political freedom). Like any nation going through a major political change, there are significant issues to grapple with and problems to overcome as the society experiments with new social concepts. Allow me to illustrate.

Yesterday a missionary friend in Mongolia said to me, “To Mongolians unity is often much higher in their priorities than truth because they have a communal society.” Brilliant! Coupled with Sharansky’s comments in his book about the differences between fear societies and free societies, I was beginning to gain greater insight into why, socially, Mongolia slipped so easily into communism. Sharansky notes, “A society is free if people have the right to express their views without fear of arrest, imprisonment, or physical harm… A simple way to determine whether the right to dissent in a particular society is being upheld is to apply the town square test: Can a person walk into the middle of the town square and express his or her views without fear of arrest, imprisonment, or physical harm? If he can, then that person is living in a free society. If not, it’s a fear society…fear societies never cross this threshold and are always unjust.”

What does this have to do with Eagle TV and state of Mongolian media? Very simply, while Mongolia has successfully transitioned from a fear society (under communism) to a free society (under democratic reform), much of its media still lags behind. Most journalists still cannot apply the town square test to their industry, or even many of their workplaces and come away saying they work in an atmosphere of complete media freedom.

The 2005 edition of Freedom of Information in Mongolia, published by Mongolia’s Press Institute, Pact Mongolia, and the U.S. Embassy, illustrates this well. It provides citation after citation of instances where Mongolian journalists were not permitted to write or produce stories on significant political or social issues. Many of those who took the risk lost their jobs, were interrogated by police, or suffered other injustices.

Even at the most free and independent media entity in the country—Eagle TV—we still see the problem of a fear society entrenched in the Mongolian media industry. During the recent Presidential elections I provided a specific set of instructions to our journalists that were designed to obey the existing laws on media and elections, while at the same time pushing the envelope, within the law, in order to gain new ground for press freedom. After the meeting was over one of our journalists came to me privately and said, “I don’t want to do this. I’m afraid.”

She wasn’t kidding, or making a mountain out of a mole hill. While there have been significant developments in media freedom during the last three years, 2003-2004 was still the period that more journalists were interrogated by authorities than any time previously. Udriin Sonin newspaper reported on April 17, 2004 that 400 journalists were interrogated, with 80 cases unresolved during that time (the Central Police Department and Judicial Authority take issue with that report). I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the reported increase happened during the period when the American-run Eagle TV was no longer on the air, serving as the standard-bearer for media freedom.

The point here is that even at the single most free, uncensored, creative media outlet in the country – Eagle TV – run by an American organization applying principles of western ethics, the fear society that still exists within the Mongolia media has not quite breathed its last. It is still able to stretch its leathery claws into our protective sphere, even if only a little.

I confess to a great deal of pride in what has been accomplished at Eagle TV. Our journalists don’t have an ideological overseer looking over their shoulder. No one on staff, or in management, has any authority to refuse airing a story on ideological grounds beyond the standard practices of fact-checking, proper sourcing, etc. It doesn’t mean things are perfect, and that our people don’t make mistakes. But it does mean that they are free to make mistakes in the exercise of their own judgment. And they are free to say no to the facilitators of the fear society within the media knowing that they will have the unquestionable backing of their fellow staff—and the boss. I believe it is this approach which best serves the growth of democratic ideals within the media and helps us set the stage for further efforts to advance freedom of conscience, and our faith in Jesus Christ.

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