For better journalism in the Western Region

18th of 9, 2015


As we in the Journalism for Development team set out for Bayankhongor aimag, I glanced through the pages of the book ‘The Heritage of Khongor Nutag’, which is how the aimag is generally called.  Established in 1941, the aimag now is home to 82,000 people. It is Lamin Gegeen’s birthplace. Some great names in Mongolian literature, such as Ch. Lkhamsuren (better known as Brown Horse), P.Purevsuren, T.Galsan, S.Dulam, and the two Luvsanvandans, are from the aimag. It has several well-known historical heritage sites, and there has been enough underground evidence that dinosaurs were plentiful in its steppe. 

We had with us G.Iderkhangai whose father Bumangin Gongor was from Bayankhongor. Before his early death, he wrote much, including poems for children, that has become classics. His own childhood was not easy and when he became the voice of democracy in his aimag, he gave special importance to safeguarding children’s rights. The son told us many tales about his father during our trip.

On a visit a few years ago, Bayankhongor city had seemed somewhat boring and drab, but this time we were welcomed by a bright city, freshened up by a long period of rain. Our team of journalists was here on a programme to improve the professional skills and standards of journalists in the Western Region. MMJ set up Journalism for Development in 2010 to help disseminate correct and relevant information on work in the mining sector to the public. Our previous training sessions, organised in cooperation with mining and economic professionals and researchers, gave journalists tips on better reporting and writing skills, on how to understand the capital market, to make sense of financial indicators and on how to apply the results of analyses and research. Bayankhongor was the latest stop on our serial interaction with local journalists.

GIZ IMRI, the German international cooperation organisation’s Integrated Mineral Resources Initiative, funds the project and we appreciation their support. We established a Local News Network in the Northern Region in May, and were now in Bayankhongor to do this in the Western Region. This will be followed by a training course in Sainshand for Southern Region journalists, and November will see a joint event in Ulaanbaatar where participants from all these trainings will meet and exchange information and experience.
As an article in our last issue made clear, our ultimate goal is to ensure that local citizens get more factual and clearer reports on what is happening in the mining sector in their area, presented in a lucid and easy-to-understand manner.

The programme at Bayankhongor brought together 27 journalists from the five aimags of the Western Region -- Bayan-Ulgii, Khovd, Gobi-Altai, Uvurkhangai and Bayankhongor -- and was facilitated by the tireless efforts of, among others, P.Sanaadagva, editor of ‘Bayankhongor Today’, and T.Danaasuren, Khongor TV executive. Our training venue was the Uguuj Bulgan tourist camp near Bayankhongor city.

Our “syllabus” included training on how to make sense of Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative reports and write news items on them and on other mining reports from the aimags; how to write features on various aspects of mining in the Western Region, such as the current situation, the market outlook, infrastructure issues, social responsibility of mining companies and its most beneficial application, reclamation, tax issues at both state and local levels, on consensus between citizens and companies; on the gold sector in the Region, and the thorny issue of artisanal mining. The MMJ team of trainers comprised N. Ariuntuya, G.Iderkhangai, E.Odjargal, and B.Tugsbilegt. G.Enkhsaikhan, manager for MMJ, was responsible for all arrangements and M.Enkh-Amgalan, cameraman of MMJ, made a pictorial documentation of the entire event.

The participating invitees included the aimag governor, D.Jargalsaikhan, Member and Leader of the aimag’s Civil Representatives Khural, and director of Khan Bank in the aimag, B.Tumurbaatar. They answered journalists’ questions and once the training was over, they arranged a visit to the Shargaljuut hot spring resort, where we and journalists who had come from distant aimags had a chance to refresh ourselves.
The interactive sessions found us discussing and analyzing the situation on the ground and public understanding and response to developments in the mining sector. Of special interest was the journalists’ enumeration of the problems they faced when reporting from mine sites.

Bayan-Ulgii aimag has 4 TV stations, one newspaper, and one magazine, with the whole aimag covered by public broadcasting. This does not mean that full or true information is available or that there is transparency in government work.  Land in some areas has been bought by Chinese companies, which do not follow the terms of their licences, using these only to raise money. So far, even EITI Mongolia reports have not been able to provide clear information, and journalists do not know who the person responsible for giving this is.
We give below brief summaries of points made by some local participants.

N.Sovet, public television and radio journalist in Bayan-Ulgii:
SS Mongolia has implemented social responsibility measures, including building a fence around a tungsten deposit, and taking it over from illegal artisanal miners. The past year has seen the start of lead deposit extraction. However, payment of salary has been irregular, and mining operations have been stopped.

D.Altanchimeg, of Khas Television in Uvurkhangai aimag: Our aimag has 4 television stations -- Soyombo, Khas, Arvai Kheer, and GM. They all are in stable condition. There are two newspapers, one monthly magazine called Colour of Uvurkhangai and also one newspaper for children.

The ownership of some mining deposits in our aimag is uncertain. The waste water from a few of these flows into the Orkhon river when it rains, causing serious pollution. Gatsuurt Co. did good remedial work in its gold deposit in East Sudunt, Bat-Ulzii soum in 2014, setting an example. Unfortunately, this year has seen illegal artisanal miners and also some citizens encroach on the reclaimed land to extract gold. Most Bat-Ulzii citizens made their living producing wood for gers, but demand has fallen as wood prices have soared, and access to forest trees in many areas has also been prohibited. With their traditional source of livelihood destroyed, they are almost forced to become artisanal miners, and police cannot control them.

G. Batpurev, of the press department in the Bayankhongor aimag government: The main part of the Monrostsevetmet mine is in the Tuin river basin, and extraction in such an area can result in a very critical situation, as the river basin ecosystem includes many rivers that flow to the gobi. Local citizens have been protesting and the local press has highlighted these protests.

J.Saruul, of the Khovd Mirror newspaper who also works for TV: When the local governors decided to support studies of the Khalzanburgedei deposit of rare earths in Khovd aimag, G.Turmunkh, editor of Khovd Mirror, followed the issue and wrote a few reports, showing how, in the absence of well laid-out norms for use of radiation in Mongolia, their use in these studies could cause great danger. In response, he was subjected to physical violence by local governors in their office but our editor was finally vindicated as work on the mine has been stalled.

MoEnCo runs Khushuut coal mine. Previously they used to pay $1to the local government per ton of coal but this now goes to the state budget. Also, there has been little extraction work in the last six months as the company cannot pay transporters. This means the deposit is not giving any benefit to the local government. The company wants to work the Olon Bulag deposit, but we get no official information on that issue from the administration, the company, or the tax authorities. Generally speaking, all mining information is kept out of media reach.

S.Javzandulam, of Jargalant Television in Khovd aimag: Khovd’s citizens have been unhappy about the Khushuut deposit for many years. A brief press release was issued when local governors signed the agreement with the mining company, but since then we have never been told anything, with every official always referring us to someone else. The terms of the agreement have not been followed, and all the initial hopes of the local people -- for jobs in a big mine, for development of  local small and medium sector manufacturing, and such – have been dashed. The company buys all it needs -- gloves for workers, drinking water, food, even milk -- from Ulaanbaatar, which does not benefit the local economy in any way.

Whenever we approach the mine’s press representative for any news, he says he is not allowed to give any information. Local governors deny that any terms in the agreement have been flouted, but do not answer specific questions. The mine had an agreement with local transporters, but has regularly been lowering rates, finally offering MNT 200 per km. Since the alternative is nothing, some accept such low rates, leading to division among transporters. All this has led to disillusionment among local citizens about the benefits from mining.

G.Mungunchimeg, of Altai Radio in Gobi-Altai aimag: The Tayan Nuur mine in our aimag is operated by Altain Khuder Company. Some 70% of the over 1,000 employees are local. Their health status is now of critical concern. Dust and air pollution levels are getting worse, even in a soum like Tseel, which is close to the mine.
Most participants spoke in the same vein about similar concerns and said after the training that they now felt more certain of how to elicit information, of what questions to ask whom, of how to assess the extent to which companies are meeting their social responsibility etc. That is one big gain from the exercise.  

No vacation for local journalists

“I am Yanjmaa and work for ‘Bayankhongor Times’ as journalist, editor, layout designer, and manager.” This is how a bouncy woman introduced herself at the beginning of the training.  Wearing so many hats, and maybe more, is nothing unusual in local journalism. A TV reporter may very well carry the camera also, and once back in the studio, may be transformed into film editor, director, and then news presenter. There is a lack of both skilled human resources and finance at the local level, so a journalist has to learn to do a variety of jobs.
This keeps local journalists always busy. We realised this during the training for the Northern Region, but press organisations in Erdenet, Darkhan, Selenge, or Tuv aimag have relatively larger work forces than those in the western aimags. Indeed, journalists from Zavkhan and Uvs aimags could not come for the training as they had to cover local Naadams. B. Battsetseg of Sanburd TV in Khentii aimag cannot be home during any festival or celebration as she is always on duty. “Since there is no substitute for any of us, we have never taken our vacation. Professional demands force local journalists to forget their home life,” she said, adding that the number of local press organisations has increased in the past three years, but there has been no corresponding change in journalists’ working norms.

The interaction with the Western Region journalists was a good experience for us. We learnt much even as we provided tips and information, and the enthusiasm of the local journalists was infectious. Many came from really far, spending much time and money, and with worries about who will do their work when they are away. N.Sovet, U.Khuat, and O.Janerke spent two days and two nights to reach Bayankhongor from Bayan-Ulgii aimag, 1,100 km away. 

Bayankhongor aimag itself has 3 TV stations, 2 newspapers, and 2 journals.  We visited four of these after the training, and while we from UB could only wonder how journalists there could work with restricted facilities, they, in their turn, were full of questions ranging from production of programmes to pricing to technical equipment.

As we entered the office of Bayankhongor Today, we saw Byambin Renchin’s famous quote: “The world should be seen with a journalist’s eye”. It was a small room, but contained all that a newspaper office needs. Cable TV there does not reach beyond the aimag centre, so the bags and soums rely on newspapers for information. P.Sanaadagva assured us that the newspaper reached all parts of the aimag, including remote bags and soums. But given the poor logistics and infrastructure situation in Mongolia, nobody knows when print or electronic media will reach all rural regions in the country. 

One concern of P.Sanaadagva was that people from Bayankhongor aimag who have moved  to UB or elsewhere, do not have a chance to subscribe to his newspaper, no matter how eager they are for their own ‘local’ news.
Smaller local newspapers are burdened with high rents and printing costs. Before they could find a place with reasonable rent the Bayankhongor Times worked from the aimag government’s office, a situation that had the potential to create conflicts of interest. Editor D.Batdamba said the staff were still getting used to their new office.  Only Khongor TV among the aimag’s media outlets owns its office premises, while others like Bayankhongor TV, Bayankhongor Today, or Bayankhongor Times pay between MNT250,000 and MNT800,000 per month as rent, quite a lot in their present financial situation. Lack of money also stops them from hiring enough skilled staff. “Almost always, a young journalist who starts his career with us will go to UB once they have learnt the job,” rued P.Sanaadagva. The average salary for a Western Region aimag’s journalist is between MNT300,000 and MNT500,000.

Both Khongor TV and Bayankhongor TV are small set-ups, making efficient use of all walls and corners of their studios for news and other programmes. It is admirable how such underequipped facilities manage to provide so much information to local people. All TV stations also offer radio broadcasts.  
It is in some ways a pleasant challenge to work in local conditions. In a small place, you get immediate feeback on your work. Since everybody knows one another, media coverage of individuals and incidents, positive or negative, is scrutinised carefully. Maybe this helps in another way, as people would not risk bad things being aired about them.

For the reporter, critical news carries some risk. One has to be extra careful that reputations are not damaged irresponsibly. Benefactors cannot be antagonised, which at times could demand skillful handling of facts.
The rural market is small, and the competition could be intense. To survive, media in aimags often seek to cooperate with the local government by agreeing to product sharing in return for some financing. On an average, 8 or 9 media outlets would share among them MNT10 million to MNT30 million. The quid pro quo would be to avoid criticising those in authority and those who signed the cooperating agreement.

This is a known fact of life and work in aimags, but one problem local press organisations face is not so well understood.  This is the ever present threat of court action against journalists for causing damage to reputation. During the training, a court summons came to T.Danaasuren, director of Khongor TV. Journalists can expect leniency if they reveal their news source, and this puts them in a bind. A good journalist can provide help or protection to many but when it comes to themselves, they seem to have little power.
Despite some differences in their working life and conditions, journalists in UB and the countryside generally face the same problems and challenges. The monetary rewards are not high but most journalists would never surrender their integrity. Local journalists, as we saw, are full of energy and keen to learn.

Local citizens have as much right to know the truth and the full truth as someone in UB and that is why journalism in the aimags must be helped provide better fare to their readers/listeners/viewers. This took us to Bayankhongor and we have returned from there full of optimism.
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