An important landmark event in Mongolia’s media was held in July this year – the first international conference on the investigative journalism in the country. It had a hefty attendance by Mongolian journalists, who during the two-days of the conference, shared important thoughts and vision for investigative journalism in the country.
Myagmar Mönkhmandakh, Executive Director of the Press Institute of Mongolia granted the following exclusive to The Mongolian Observer focusing on the present and future of investigative journalism in Mongolia, the accomplishments and the challenges in this brand new domain in Mongolian journalism.
What prompted the Press Institute to call this conference?
The first international investigative journalism conference was part of a chain of interconnected events. In 2014, the Deutsche Welle Akademie jointly with the Press Institute launched the Investigative Journalism project to build up training capacities for teaching investigative journalism in Mongolia. In 2015, the Press Institute became a member of the Global Investigative Journalism Network. The same year, Press Institute trainers took part in the 9th Global Investigative Journalism conference. Inspired by their experience from the conference, our trainers took the first step to promote investigative journalism in Mongolia – through roundtable meetings with journalists and journalism educators, translation and publication of materials for investigative journalists in Mongolia and social media posts. In 2016, our trainers, together with colleagues from Mongol TV, attended the 2nd Asian Investigative journalism conference in Nepal. There we struck on the idea of organizing an investigative journalism conference in Mongolia to draw the attention and interest of media professionals to muckraking. Shortly after coming back from Nepal, the Press Institute together with Mongol TV organized the first national conference on investigative journalism.
We were short on budget and time, we did not have financial resources to promote the event, but the interest among media professionals was huge. About 70 media professionals attended, more people would have come if we wouldn’t have limited the number of participants due to financial reasons. Anyway, participants in this first ever gathering to talk about the needs, challenges and potentials of investigative journalism in Mongolia agreed that it was time to move forward. After the conference, we formed a group of initiators to establish an independent Center for Investigative Journalism to promote investigative reporting in the country.
At first the meetings always ended in disagreement and confusion, perhaps because of our lack of experience to work together for a common good, and perhaps because there were too many issues on the agenda. In the meantime, Press Institute trainers were coached by experts from Deutsche Welle Akademie in ways and methods to teach investigative journalism. This project, to a certain extent, served as a solid foundation to realize our dreams and efforts to develop investigative journalism. The idea of organizing an international conference on investigative journalism was born during our sessions with Deutsche Welle Akademie experts and embodied in the process I described above.
The role media can play as a watchdog is indispensable for democracy. Do you think that the time has come for promoting investigative journalism in the country? And why should we go for investigative journalism?
In mature democracies, media is expected to ensure accountability and transparency and provide a platform for debate across a diverse range of views. I’m saying “mature democracies” because there the core qualities and institutions of democratic governance are already established. In Mongolia (and other young democracies) the development of new media structures and the adoption and implementation of new values, principles and skills (which are necessary for the media to play the role of a watchdog) are taking place simultaneously with the establishment of democratic institutions.
Many people say, investigative journalism in Mongolia is “too dangerous” or even impossible. Bureaucracy and secrecy culture are prevailing in government institutions, corruption is thriving and there are no legal regulations to protect journalists revealing wrongdoings. Nevertheless, we can’t wait until, for example, proper mechanisms are in place to ensure maximum disclosure of government operations. We need to play our watchdog role while building democratic institutions and mindsets. Otherwise, the emerging democracy can perish before unfolding. Especially because democracy is so fragile right now, media should step in to protect and promote people’s beliefs in democratic values, such as the rule of law, equality, truth and justice. To do so, we need to promote and strengthen investigative journalism to hold people and institutions accountable and promote values that serve as the basis of democratic societies.
In Mongolia, I do not think, journalists have been or are being trained in investigative journalism. However, I know your Institute has pioneered the first training in investigative journalism. How confident do you feel about the future of investigative journalism in the country?
Journalists and media houses showed great interest when we first announced our investigative journalism course which was developed in collaboration and with the assistance of Deutsche Welle Akademie. This first ever investigative journalism compact course was lead jointly by the Press Institute trainers and international experts, including Mark Lee Hunter, the author of a prominent handbook for investigative journalists “Story based inquiry”, Professor Michael Haller, Scientific Director of the Institute for Practical Journalism and Communications Research and Markus Lindemann, research trainer and investigative journalist from Germany. All trainers were very positive about the potentials of training participants.
Journalists with great courage, interest and motivation to go in for investigative journalism can become powerful muckrakers when they are properly trained in methods and tools of investigative reporting. From what we have experienced during our training courses I feel really confident that a new generation of young investigative reporters will very soon write new pages in the history of Mongolian journalism and society.
Apart from the training of journalists in investigative journalism, the Press Institute has also launched the first in the country Mongolian Center for Investigative Journalism? What is the role and responsibility of this center? What does the center plan to accomplish?
The Mongolian Center for Investigative Journalism was launched in the form of a website. This means for now the website will be our main platform for sharing knowledge and experience, networking, publishing stories and discussing issues relevant to investigative journalism. The Center wants to encourage investigative reporters and those who wish to do investigative journalism and let them know that they are not alone in their dreams, challenges and frustrations. Apart from online activities, we also plan to organize regular events to create a community of investigative journalists, encourage collaboration, provide coaching, if necessary, help raise funds for independent investigations, and support and protect each other, when necessary. The formal structure and organization of the Center and the way to ensure its sustainability are still being discussed. But because there is a big demand on the part of journalists, we simply decided to start collaborating at least in the virtual space. Our vision is a strong, credible, independent investigative journalism in Mongolia which serves as the backbone of a strong democracy.
Do you think the country has the necessary legal and legislative framework for promoting investigative journalism? If not, what needs to be done and how can the safety of reporters doing investigative journalism be guaranteed if there is a retaliation, say from the official quarters, for uncovering matters that are concealed either deliberately by someone in position of power, say a corruption case, or accidentally, behind a chaotic mass of facts and circumstances?
In comparison to some other young democracies Mongolia has a relatively strong legal environment for media freedom and pluralism. We have a Law on Freedom of Information which guarantees mechanisms to ensure transparency of government organizations. The new Criminal law says that obstructing citizens and media from seeking, receiving and disseminating legally not prohibited information is a criminal offense. Nevertheless, there are no legal and self-regulatory mechanisms to ensure editorial independence of media. Pressures in the form of direct threats and economic censorship (e.g. withdrawing advertisement) do happen. As regards the safety of investigative reporters, we need to advocate for improving the legal environment for media freedom, but we also need to strengthen the professionalism of journalism. Too often journalists are targeted by people in power because of professional mistakes that can be avoided. On the other hand, especially investigative reporters need to collaborate and network. They need to support and protect each other so that those who want to harass journalists would see the power of networked reporters. This is a common trend globally. For this reason, the Press Institute joined the Global Investigative Journalism Network – we know that we have a lot to learn from our colleagues elsewhere. And we also know that we can count on their solidarity and assistance whenever needed.