By Julian Dierkes
Thanks to support from the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development, I was able to participate in the Freedom Online Coalition conference in Ulaanbaatar.
Below, I want to highlight some of the discussions and presentations that were of particular relevance to Mongolia.
For a more general sense of discussions at the conference, see #FOC15 on Twitter, or a write-up in the UB Post, or a blogged recap. To my disappointment, the conference seems not to have been covered by any international journalists at all.
The conference was hosted at Government House, always a grand, but also quite functional venue.
As would befit this kind of international gathering, the conference was opened by a brief greeting by H.E. L Purevsuren, foreign minister.
Welcome to #FOC15 by @lpurevsuren. Highlights #Mongolia as Asian open society. pic.twitter.com/tMLfksd8zF
— Julian Dierkes (@jdierkes) May 4, 2015
Naturally, FM Purevsuren also mentioned that Mongolia is celebrating 25 years of democracy this year. H.E. Ts Elbegdorj, president of Mongolia, spoke next. Jargal de Facto’s Jargal D served as the MC.
President Elbegdorj opening #FOC15pic.twitter.com/JtH7HGvdMr — Zolboo Nemekhbayar (@zolboo_n) May 4, 2015
Kindly, Pres. Elebgdorj, identified this conference as the most exciting conference he has opened.
His address was surprisingly long, substantive and sincere, at least to me.
Some of the themes he touched on included the rapid transformation of Mongolia, drawing particularly on his herder origins and reminiscing about the role of “communications” in the countryside during the state socialist era (ie ride on horseback to fetch a doctor and better bring a horse for him/her). Changes that he identified in Mongolia included the telecommunications revolution, but also democracy and relative prosperity.
At one point, he pulled out a pretty classic “brick” cell phone to illustrate that telecommunications had also developed rapidly and massively.
Pres. Elbegdorj also spoke about the Freedom Online Coalition agenda (summed up in my understanding by something like “ensuring that off-line human rights are also enforced/respected/implemented online”).
“We all know, online freedom has no owner, global common” @elbegdorj #FOC15
— Julian Dierkes (@jdierkes) May 4, 2015
After proclaiming online freedom a human right, he compared attempts by government to control the internet to “global warming”, noting also that “democracy is a learning process” and that “people have a right to be suspicious”.
While Pres Elebgdorj didn’t refer to Ts. Bat by name, it seemed to me that he had #FreeBat in mind when he talked about recent challenges to online freedom in Mongolia.
Online Freedom in Mongolia
I had organized a panel that would focus on a discussion of the threat that defamation lawsuits might pose to journalists and the extent to which this threat might lead to self-censorship.
Interesting panel, something very close to heart. #FOC15 #Mongolia. Panelists: @jdierkes, @Lkhagva et al pic.twitter.com/YZKn0p5SFr
— Mogi (@MBBontoi) May 4, 2015
With Trevor Kennedy, Melanie Schweiger and Christina Toeppel, we discussed the personal liability of journalists in traditional media, online, and for citizen journalists across FOC member countries, but also in China, India, Russia, and Thailand as particularly significant examples. Libel or defamation appears in the penal and civic codes of many countries, including FOC members. There is a concerted effort to move these provisions to the civic code, but that has not happened everywhere. The question of personal liability is one that is often highlighted in reporting about the state of media in Mongolia, for example (which led us to this topic in the first place), and it is taken into account by the various indices, but there are several high-ranked countries that have personal liability, Australia being a prominent example. As a general pattern among the FOC members, however, countries that are ranked highly on freedom-of-the-press indices tend not to have personal liability provisions on the book.
The other general pattern we saw is that Asian FOC members (Japan, Maldives, Mongolia), but also the other Asian countries we included in our survey (China, India, Thailand) all have personal liability provisions that threaten journalists financially and otherwise. Given that this was the first FOC conference held in the Asia-Pacific region and that some voices in the plenary session called for an expansion of the membership, particularly in underrepresented regions (anywhere but Europe and North America), we thought that this was noteworthy.
Lhagva who has been involved in efforts to set up the Media Council of Mongolia, joined the session to talk about media policy in Mongolia. #FreeBat was a touchstone in this discussion, but of course that hasn’t been the only case in Mongolia. Last year’s attempt to ban a set of “swear words” was another example, as has been the lack of enforcement of some press-related laws. Lhagva expressed his surprise that Mongolia ranks fairly high in various indices of democracy and freedom of the press.
Most of our #FOC15 panel after our session. pic.twitter.com/QDvkmOY1Tr
— Julian Dierkes (@jdierkes) May 4, 2015
Our session was also included in live-blogging by GoGo News Agency. After we concluded the session, we experimented with a wrap-up that was broadcast on Periscope, Twitter’s video-broadcasting service. It appears that there were some viewers, but we later could not retrieve the recorded version which only lasts 24hrs on Periscope in any case. My inability to name the broadcast something sensible (other than “Untitled”) probably didn’t increase the viewership, though the app claimed that 61 viewers watched us live.
In a panel on the second day, research organized by the Silk Road Foundation focused on the legal environment for online free speech.
At Freedom Online Coalition conference. Silk Road Foundation presenting Embassy-supported report. pic.twitter.com/ofLacyiHGf — Ed Jager (@EHJager) May 5, 2015
Several presentations were quite useful in listing the laws and governmental authorities that are involved in regulating free speech, but it was also clear from the comments at the end of these presentations, that there is a fair bit of frustration in this community about the lack of responsiveness of the government/parliament to continued arguments for changes in the law, and to the mismatch between Mongolia’s international commitments and the laws and regulations that govern online communications. Activist Kh Nomingerel was particularly vocal in this regard in her presentation on “The Legal Framework of Freedom of Expression on the Internet”.
“Criminalization of libel discussed for yrs, but not enough to convince govt of #Mongolia” @Nomingerel #FOC15 — Julian Dierkes (@jdierkes) May 5, 2015
“Grateful for GoM dedication to tech, but call to end paternalistic regulation of freedom online” @Nomingerel #FOC15 — Julian Dierkes (@jdierkes) May 5, 2015
“Hope that #FOC15 might build momentum for expansion of online freedom in #Mongolia.” @Nomingerel — Julian Dierkes (@jdierkes) May 5, 2015
Cover Mongolia‘s Mogi also participated in the panel discussion. Rather than focus on the more abstract legal aspects, he pointed to the specific implementation of some of these laws as they limit online freedom. He urged listeners to have a look at the Black List of domain names that are blocked in Mongolia, as well as to inform themselves about the FinFisher mention on WikiLeaks.
Significance of FOC Conference in Mongolia
In addition to the topic of online freedom that I arrived at through my interest in digital diplomacy, I was very interested in the FOC conference as a foreign policy tool. Here, the hosting of the conference surely was a success. By being selected and then acting as the host, Mongolia reaffirmed its claim to membership in the club of democracies. Some of its “third neighbours” are quite active and were well-represented at the conference, especially Canada and the United States with delegations from Ottawa and Washington participating respectively. Japanese participation was more limited, and Australia just joined the FOC.
Whether or not the calls for alignment between claims to human rights online and democracy, and the actual implementation of internet-related laws detract from the overall hosting of the conference is hard to say, but since most of the “FOC-crowd” is unlikely to have sustained interactions with Mongolia, I suspect that the symbolic impact will far outweigh any doubts visitors might have had about sincerity.
Of course, even the symbolic impact will be somewhat limited, as not a single foreign journalist covered the conference and beyond some blogs, little notice has been taken of the event.
The domestic press covered the conference extensively. Here, I suspect the impact is more one of the satisfaction at being a viable member in a club of advanced democracies than the attention given to some of the shortcomings in Mongolia’s regulations.
Mongolia should be kicked out. As a sign.
Membership criteria remain undefined, though that was identified as a future area of work, so kicking any country out would be an extreme step, even where there are substantial concerns as the ones I mentioned in the post.