Mongolia: Changing the voice in the wilderness
|Publication Date||15 November 2005|
|Cite as||EurasiaNet, Mongolia: Changing the voice in the wilderness, 15 November 2005, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/46cd80b62d.html [accessed 30 October 2014]|
Marius Dragomir 11/15/05
A EurasiaNet Partner Post from Transitions Online
This has been a revolutionary year in Mongolia's year. It may have taken 15 years, but Mongolia now has the possibility of a national radio and television service that will provide a genuinely public service. The change is deservedly winning plaudits – but how that deep and long-lasting the change will be may rest on problem that is hard to resolve in a small, poor country: finance.
Mongolia came late to the notion of national television broadcasting – Mongolia has had a national TV broadcaster since 1967 (its national radio service was in operation long before that) – and, in a country whose tiny population (now estimated at 2.8 million) is spread over a huge territory (Mongolia is nearly three times size of France), television only slowly began to be a major presence in daily life.
Television is, though, now commonplace. Of the 541,000 households in Mongolia, 300,000 own a television set.
What has been lacking, though, is a public-service broadcaster. For some time, there has been variety on Mongolians' television screens. Many households have cable television, which ensures that they have access not just to the national television service, but also to some of the privately owned television channels that have sprung up over the past decade, channels such as UBS, MN-25, Eagle TV, TV5, and TV9.
But the commercial channels trying to eke out a profit in Mongolia pay relatively little attention to news coverage. For the past 15 years, the main source of news and information for a large part of the population, particularly in the countryside, has remained the national broadcaster Mongolian National Radio and Television (MNRTV). But throughout Mongolia's transition, MNRTV has been exposed to political pressure, which has sometimes shown through in political bias.
After 1990, when Mongolia first held multiparty elections, various attempts were made to promote the notion of public-service broadcasting. However, media reformers never managed to secure political support to change the laws. For much of that time, Mongolia has been ruled by the Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party (MPRP), the continuation of the communist-era ruling party. But even an interlude between 1996 and 2000, when the MPRP was forced out of power, little progress was made. Until January 2005, the high point of media reform was in 1998, when a new media law was adopted that increased media freedoms.
What seems to have produced the abrupt change this year was the split parliament – or State Great Hural – produced by elections in June 2004. After long discussions, the MPRP and the opposition reached a power-sharing arrangement that resulted in a coalition government led by a former opposition leader.
AN INDEPENDENT BODY ...
Mongolia's new public-service broadcasting law is modeled on Western examples and envisages a station managed, financed and controlled by the public. The veteran journalist Kh. Naranjargal, president of the NGO Globe International, says "the law isn't bad.... [It] talks about the main principles [of a public-service broadcaster], which are to ensure its independence and ongoing operations." This is a low-key response to a breakthrough achieved after many years – Globe International has been pushing for the reform of the Mongolian state broadcasting since 1990 – and a law that is already producing substantial changes.
The old state-appointed director-general remains in place, but the process of selecting a new director and deputy director should start within weeks. Vision, experience, and independence will be needed, prompting some MPs to call for the post to be open to foreigners as well.
Already, though, there is a new regulatory body for MNRTV. The new body, which was formed in October, six months after the new law came into force, gives almost as many seats to civil-society representatives as to political appointees. The government and president were each entitled to appoint four members to the 15-member body. The remaining seven members of the Mongolian Radio and Television Council were proposed by Mongolia's 300 or so active NGOs and civil-society groups, though the final choice had to win parliament's approval.
The result is a very varied group that includes bankers, artists, writers, and priests.
While the inclusion of non-political figures in overseeing MNRTV is a healthy development, much will now depend on ensuring that their power in the appointment process is not hijacked by political and other groups interested in propelling their people into the council. That is a very real risk: a recent EUMAP report on Europe's media found that in countries such as the Czech Republic and Germany political parties have used NGOs as a means of gaining more representation on the boards of their broadcasting regulators. In a small country like Mongolia, that risk is particularly great.
B. Khanddolgor, vice-director of Mongolian public radio, highlighted some of criteria by which the new service's independence will be judged. "To have an independent management team, the station's board must be elected in a democratic and transparent manner, and its members must not be fired for political or private reasons."
The quality of journalism should also be a criterion and, here, the new CEO and regulators face a substantial challenge. "Many journalists in Mongolia are just conclusion-makers, not news-deliverers," said a participant at a media conference held in the Mongolian capital, Ulaanbaatar, in mid-October. "It's important to make them feel independent." That might take time, but it may happen since, with sound legislation and a new governing council in place, it is now expected that there will be a radical overhaul of the broadcasting service's operations, including substantial staff cuts.
"By adopting this law, we are changing the mentalities of people and politicians," said E. Nyamaa, one of the members of parliament who championed the law.
... BUT WITH AN ACHILLES HEEL
Many observers are concerned, though, that the way MNRTV is financed will prevent or slow down that change in mentality.
The broadcasting law stipulates that public television should be funded through a combination of license fees, advertising revenues, state support and other sources such as donations. However, advertising revenues are limited to two percent of airtime and can only be "related to education," a decision seemingly taken because the trend in continental Europe is to reduce or remove advertising from public broadcasts.
But taking this line on advertising accentuates the problems in funding MNRTV. "The license fee model is good, but it has its weaknesses, mainly the low collection rate and the low level of the license fee," argues B. Khanddolgor, the deputy head of Mongolian radio. The monthly fee is approximately $1 dollar, still a fairly sizable sum in a country where the monthly average wage is less than $100. The chances of increasing fees may be limited because any hikes need to be approved by parliament.
In a country where some 37 percent of the population lived below the poverty line in 2004 and that only now is planning to build its first long road (at the moment, there are only a few hundred kilometers of tarmac roads), collecting license fees is a challenge. In Ulaanbaatar only 49 percent of those with televisions pay up. In the countryside the figure falls to 37 percent, according to B. Ganbaatar, head of MNRTV's marketing department. Resistance is one factor, since "families in the countryside do not want to pay the fee because they have cable." But distance is also a problem. Ganbaatar says that sometimes collection costs are higher than the fee itself. Overall, "we spend 10 cents for every dollar [collected] in urban areas and half a dollar in rural areas," Ganbaatar said. In other words, most license fees in this still largely rural country merely serve to pay the license-fee collector.
At the same time, costs have been rising as some of MNRTV's antiquated equipment breaks down (almost 60 percent of the station's equipment is from the communist era).
The result has been that the state has had to step in. Over the past three years, the state has almost doubled its contribution. In 2006, 75 percent of the station's total budget (currently expected to be 4,875 million tugriks, or $4.1 million) is expected to come from the state, with just 20 percent coming from license fees.
So, while MNRTV's management and operations are becoming independent, its finances are increasingly dependent on the state. The concern has to be that funding problems will eventually weaken the wind of independence blowing through MNRTV.
More could be done to reduce this financial reliance on the state. Yu. Erdenetuya, a researcher working for the Mongolian parliament, argues that MNRTV needs to improve and revamp its marketing department that would implement "flexible marketing policies" and explain to viewers why they need to pay a license fee.
But international experts argue that the Mongolian Radio and Television Council should lobby parliament to be allowed to raise more from advertising.
How much this would ease problems in the short term is questionable given the weakness of the advertising market in Mongolia, but in the long term this may be the broadcaster's best hope of reducing its dependence on the state. The aspiration to avoid commercialization may be admirable, but the road to a re-politicized broadcasting service is sometimes paved with good intentions.
Editor's Note: Marius Dragomir is a Prague-based media consultant invited as a foreign expert to the conference on the future of Mongolian National Radio and Television.
Posted November 15, 2005 © Eurasianet