Monday, August 4, 2008

Mongolian Press

A free press and freedom of expression are cornerstones of a healthy democratic political process. This is an idea that is so often repeated that I think sometimes we have a tendency to accept it uncritically without exception. The current political row in Mongolia has made me reevaluate this idea because increasingly I observe a democratic process being tainted by a seemingly unprofessional and irresponsible press.

Several news outlets seem to have taken the idea of press freedom and freedom of expression to the same logical but immoral conclusion that a prankster in a crowded theater might use to justify shouting "Fire!" That is, freedom of expression is the right to say whatever, whenever one feels the need to express oneself regardless of the consequences of saying it. Several online news outlets and print news agencies, as well as a couple of television stations, in Mongolia seem to apply this reasoning to their reporting. Whether factual or not, the press has the right to print or broadcast whatever, whenever it wants--so the argument seems to go based on the behavior of some of these media outlets.

When someone chooses to express oneself, one always runs the risk of saying something controversial that may produce adverse consequences. It is a fact of political life, and often this is the defense used by the press when unseemly information about the government is printed and politicians or bureaucrats try to silence legitimate reporting on the basis of libel or character assassination. In such cases, the argument goes that the right for the public to know and the need to inform for the public good supersedes any claim of libel. In other words, people generally have a tendency to give the benefit of the doubt to the reporter reporting the information rather than the government officials claiming the information to be a lie, as to do otherwise puts society at risk of being unable to root out serious political malfeasance. It's probably not a bad assumption to make most of the time that claims of libel are intended to silence the reporter rather than set the record straight, at least in circumstances where the reporter has much greater credibility than the government officials. And, maybe that is a key point. The idea of credibility.

Freedom of expression comes with certain responsibilities. It is not totally free. We cannot shout "Fire!" in a crowded theater because we have a responsibility to help maintain the peace in society at the expense of a childish desire to play a prank. And, media outlets should not report false or unsubstantiated information, because they have a responsibility, too, to support a healthy democratic political process at the expense of their own desire to meet a deadline or sell more papers. Freedom without responsibility is simply anarchy. I wonder how often media outlets in Mongolia can participate in reporting that is closer to anarchy than legitimate freedom of expression before they lose all credibility to confront legitimate cases of political malfeasance? How many times can one shout "Fire!" before people stop listening?

I have come across numerous articles ( and the UB Post are two print examples) of information being reported with little evidence to substantiate claims or without caveats such as "it is alleged" or "evidence of this claim was not forthcoming." Instead, articles contain claims without caveats or important supporting information, and many times they are presented as fact as opposed to speculation. Readers of the newspapers should look for these sorts of omissions, because they signal at best sloppiness and lack of journalistic integrity and at worst deliberate efforts to complicate the political process by misinforming the public.

Democracies cannot function without freedom of expression. But, they also cannot function without people respecting the responsibilities that go along with that right. The Mongolian media has a lot of work to do as an industry before it can rightfully claim that it has a substantially positive impact on the political process. Without integrity and trust, the industry is a purveyor of rumors and misinformation that potentially are dangerous tools for deliberately derailing the political process and harming the public.

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