The journalist sat in my office at Eagle TV to tell me one thing, “I am afraid.” I had just concluded a meeting with our news department. We were discussing our strategy for how we were going to cover the 2005 presidential election in Mongolia. I outlined a strategy and practical steps that would enable us to push the envelope of media freedom in Mongolian and allow our journalists to take risks in their coverage. Most of the journalists around the room were up for the challenge, though they seemed a bit nervous. After the meeting one of them approached me and very sincerely said to me, “I am afraid.” This journalist feared what the government might do if we did the coverage the way we were planning. I excused that journalist from having to take part. I didn’t want to force that journalist into a situation he or she was not prepare to handle.
After reading the news out of Mongolia today, I can also say that…
I am afraid.
Today, I am afraid for my friends who work in Mongolian media because of newly proposed law which would give the Mongolian government the authority to shut down a media operation for six months, “If any such organization is found spreading false information and denigrating a candidate or candidates” (1).
Mongolia has seen these kinds of efforts before. And it is a sign that the freedoms Mongolia has enjoyed can take a reverse turn if people are not diligent to protect those freedoms. And journalistic freedoms are one at the top of the list that must be protected against badly conceived laws such as this one.
I am afraid.
Today, I am afraid of the effect this proposed law could have on Mongolia’s independent journalism. Independence means not only that journalists must be allowed to pursue a story wherever it may lead. But they must also be protected when they make mistakes or exercise bad judgment. Everyone recognizes that sometimes journalists are biased or draw conclusions that come from personal opinion rather than balanced perspectives. But so what? Journalists are human beings, they make mistakes, they make bad judgment calls, just a like a parliament member or prime minister or a president. A law like this will force journalists and media organizations to curtail their investigations. The result will be the same as if there were a government lackey in every media organization approving or disapproving of each story written. Isn’t that how the communists did it?
I am afraid.
Today, I am afraid of what could happen to a media organization if the 6-month punishment is levied against them (without trial?) and they are forced to shut down. How many businesses can financially recover from going dark for six months? Not many. Such a punishment does not punish a journalist for a bad decision, it punishes ALL of the journalists and other employees. It will put them out of a job. It will force every journalist to pull back on exercising their freedoms to the point where all of them will fear reprisals no matter what they do. That’s not moving forward in freedom. That’s moving backward, into oppression.
I am afraid.
Today, I am afraid that a bright light of journalistic freedom in Mongolia will be snuffed out. Consider where Mongolia is. The bear to the north and the dragon to the south have no free and independent media. Media is a tool of the government for propaganda and oppression. Mongolian media has its flaws, but it is a bright candle compared to its immediate neighbors. Mongolian journalists, do you want to be like the media in Russia or China? I would hope not. Mongolia must protect its journalists by ensuring its journalistic freedoms.
After selling Eagle TV to our former Mongolian partners, it’s new manager asked me a question. “Everyone knows that Eagle TV’s culture is different from other stations. How did you create that culture?” he asked. “Simple,” I said. “We have a culture of freedom. People are allowed to make mistakes and they know they won’t lose their jobs for it. They are free.”
Israeli politician Natan Sharansky once noted that there is a big difference between a free society and a fear society. If the average person can walk into the city square and publicly criticize the government for all to hear, and there are no reprisals, then he lives in a free society. But if he cannot do that, if he knows he will be punished for his publicly expressed opinions, then he lives in a fear society.
If this proposed law is passed, make no mistake, Mongolian journalists will go back to living in a fear society.