Hindsight & Foresight

Now that I’m back into full swing in the office I want to provide some perspective about the effects of the Mongolian riots.

During the four day Sate of Emergency I read many comments from Mongolians, and even had a few discussions on the issue: Is Mongolia’s Democracy Dead?

In short, not by a long shot.

You may have read blogs or comments online that the MPRP (that handily won last week’s election) was intending to use the State of Emergency to take control of the country or reduce freedoms, democracy, the press, and so on. One person I talked with asked if this was a prelude to a declaration of martial law.

From where I sit, these kinds of verbal machinations are—and I want to be diplomatic when I say this—a great big fat load of fantasy crap. Mongolia’s democracy is not dead. I don’t see any telltale signs that the MPRP is going to seize power, restrict freedoms, or declare martial law. Nor do I think they want to. Claims such as this are just, just, just…crap. That’s about as diplomatic as I can be.

The MPRP may not be the favorite party of a lot of people, but I don’t think we can look at their activities of the last four years and credibly say they intend to return Mongolia to the days of communism or forced one-party rule. A smattering of my reasoning…

If the MPRP intended to restrict freedoms, then the State of Emergency would not have had a built-in four-day limit. It would have been open ended. As the days went by the government made clear that it fully intended to ensure the State of Emergency was lifted by the deadline. And of course, it was.

If martial law was really an option, it would have happened right away.

As it stands, one of the chief complaints many people have about the government is that it reacted too slowly to the riot threat. Oppressive regimes don’t react slowly to threats, they usually react quickly and with overbearing demonstrations of force. That’s not what happened last week. Yes, five people were killed, including four who were shot. But that’s not an overbearing demonstration of force. Nor is tear gas. Nor are riot police. Nor are water cannons. The only overbearing demonstration of force that went on last week was that of the rioters who would not even allow emergency personnel to put out the fires!

As for seizing power, the MPRP doesn’t need to seize power—they already have power through legitimate elections. Nor have they tried to wield excessive power that violates Mongolia’s constitution.

There is some debate as to whether is was legal for President Enkhbayar to order all media shut down during the State of Emergency. Even Prime Minister Bayar admitted publicly on July 5th that there was no such legal requirement or allowance for such a move. But I’m not overly concerned with that issue. When buildings are burning and being ransacked and the government decides to take measures to protect life and property, I’m inclined to cooperate with their requests or orders. Cooperating with the order to stop broadcasting did not hurt democracy, or freedom of speech and press in the long term—not one bit. The propaganda that ran on State TV afterward was certainly bogus, but most people aren’t fooled by that kind of garbage. Besides that, after four days everything was back to normal. So how was freedom or democracy hurt or impeded?

Now, these comments of mine should not be taken to mean that I don’t think there wasn’t some corruption going on during the elections. I’m not in a position to make such an accusation, but it would be ignorant to assume that there were no attempts in certain areas to skew election results. Heck, we’ve seen this in the U.S. Remember the efforts in Florida to validate invalid ballots during the 2000 election? In fact, one of the reasons given last week by protesters for their actions was that as poll results were coming in early in the day, their parties were winning. But as more results came later in the day they started losing ground. They therefore accused the MPRP of corrupting the results.

Did they corrupt the results? I have no clue. But I have heard this complaint before—in 2004. John Kerry’s people said early in the day that exit polling gave them big leads. But by the end of the day Kerry had been crushed. Moral of the story? Early returns and incomplete exit polls are not a legitimate basis to protest an election!

I’ve already written about the direction that some MPs seem to want to take to legislate Eagle TV out of existence. There are some people of significance who hold us partly responsible for the riots simply because we provided live news coverage. But, let’s be honest, even if the parliament found a way to legislate Eagle TV off the air, it doesn’t automatically follow that freedom of speech or press in Mongolia would be completely dead. I don’t want to give Eagle TV too much credit, but let’s look at the facts.

Consider that Ulaanbaatar now has 12 terrestrial TV stations, plus many radio stations and numerous newspapers. While all of the stations except for Eagle TV are owned either by politicians or political interests, almost all of them have been influenced in one way or another by the work of Eagle TV. Live coverage of events, once an Eagle-only affair, is beginning to become normal. Live, uncensored viewer calls, once an Eagle-only affair, has been adopted by most stations in one form or another. In fact, once Eagle provides live coverage of a major event, the other stations usually feel compelled to contribute in some fashion. The influence of our values and practices is clearly felt across the industry, and in the halls of government.

Of course, it is my greatest hope that our work will continue unabated and unrestricted. There has been a great deal of growth in Mongolian journalism and freedom of press. But there is still a lot of work to be done and new ground to be broken. I want Eagle TV to continue its role of leadership in this area. But if we are legislated out of existence, I seriously doubt the powers that be, no matter what side of the isle they may be on, would be able to put the genie back in the bottle. Mongolian media has grown beyond that, and will continue to grow. I hope we will continue to be part of that growth, and help it reach maturity, faster.

In conclusion, a sober look at the political situation may reveal corruption on various sides at various levels. It may reveal serious problems in election practices and the execution of law. It may also reveal persistent problems in journalism and the practice of free press. But the existence of these problems, in my view, indicates growth—and its growth for the better. Like it or not, the MPRP is part of that growth. The MPRP isn’t perfect. But neither are the Dems, or the other parties. Step back and take a dispassionate look and you will see that the MPRP has contributed some very positive things to the development of Mongolia’s democracy. To deny it is to dine on sour grapes.

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