Assistant Secretary Tom Malinowski Remarks: Democracy and Free Speech – The Mongolian Experience at Twenty-Five Years

ULAANBAATAR – I’m delighted to be here with you to celebrate the 2015 World Press Freedom Day. Every year at this time we reflect on the state of press freedom around the world and honor the sacrifices made by journalists who have lost their lives or been threatened or imprisoned for doing their job, for discovering and telling the truth.

So, as we thank journalists for their work, we also call on governments to recognize the universal human right to free expression both online and offline.

A free press keeps people informed and holds government accountable, and the fact is that we can’t govern honestly without it.  This is as true today as it has ever been in the past.  Now, it’s true that much has changed in our global media environment.  In many developed democracies, there are fewer daily newspapers.  More and more people get their information from social media.  But whenever I hear about a journalist who is attacked or threatened or censored somewhere in the world, it reminds me just how important journalism is – if it wasn’t important, as a means of giving power to ordinary citizens and curbing the power of governments, no one would go to the trouble of trying to restrain it.  In this sense, the death of journalists on the job is proof that the death of journalism – something people in my country ocassionally talk about – is a myth.

It is also, of course, a call to action for all countries committed to human rights.  At the State Department last week, we launched our annual Free the Press campaign, in which we highlight cases of individual reporters who have been wrongly imprisoned in countries around the world. One of them is Gao Yu, a 71-year-old Chinese journalist; she was arrested last year, coerced into making a televised confession, and sentenced to seven years in jail. In Syria, Mazen Darwish remains imprisoned by the Asad regime for trying to expose the regime’s brutal atrocities. In Vietnam, Ta Phong Tan continues to serve a 10-year sentence for unmasking government corruption. In Ethiopia, Reeyot Alemu, was arrested for writing an article critical of the Ethiopian government, and remains in prison under terrorism charges.

On Friday, we also invited three journalists who have been censored or detained in their own countries, Russia, Ethiopia and Vietnam, to come to the White House and interview President Obama—because we thought that the best reward you can give to a journalist isn’t praise, it’s an exclusive interview with the President of the United States. When governments go after journalists, this is how the U.S. responds.

We’ve included more details about these brave journalists on  And we tweeted about these cases using the hashtag #FreethePress. I encourage all of you to share their stories with your community, be that through retweeting, drafting articles or blogs, or if you must, revert to that old-fashioned mode of communication—simply tell your family and friends.

I know that many of you in this room experienced the transition from living in a political system in which freedom of expression was not protected to living in a system that guarantees your power to speak and write according to the dictates of your conscience.  Arguably more than many of us in the United States and Europe, you know how important these freedoms are.

It’s been twenty-five years now since Mongolia held a remarkable, peaceful democratic revolution.  In an era that saw so much violence and upheaval, Mongolia provided an example of a swift and nonviolent transition to a government that seeks to listen to its people in order to, as we often say in America, form a more perfect union.  As the Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, I wish there were more “Mongolias” in the world.

Mongolia has not rested on this significant achievement either.  It has used the last 25 years to enact reforms protecting human rights and expanding social and economic opportunities for its citizens.  Though there is still much difficult work to be done, the government has been doing what governments are supposed to do:  removing restrictions on people to let them live lives of their own choosing according to their abilities.

Mongolia has also been recognized as one of the countries leading East Asia to a more democratic and free future.  It is an active participant in important multilateral institutions, including the Community of Democracies and the Freedom Online Coalition. It recently chaired the Security Forum of the OSCE, it has been a strong partner of NATO and contributes above and beyond its size to UN Peacekeeping efforts in order to promote peace and security worldwide.   We are grateful for Mongolia’s participation in those organizations to promote respect for democracy and human rights in the region.

I’d like to share with you a quote from a speech by President Elbegdorj before the Community of Democracies in 2013: “Mongolia stands ready to share her democratic lessons, achievements and success.  We stand open to discuss our mistakes, the ways to correct them and to be studied by others.  We are ready for action and engagement. Look at us as a center of democracy education, a life model for challenges and opportunities of freedom.”

It is important for countries that believe in these issues and share these values to band together. And Mongolia’s voice is particularly resonant. You are a democracy wedged between two countries with troubling human rights records and a history of censorship and suppression. You are the first country in Asia to participate in the Freedom Online Coalition. You may be smaller than your neighbors to the north and south, but your willingness to lead on these issues, to stick out your neck, makes Mongolia distinctive in the region. It increases Mongolia’s voice in the world.

And this, by the way, is good for you, too. It’s good for Mongolia’s future. You are more likely to attract foreign investment if you have a reputation as a stable country that respects the rule of law. Russia may have resources, strength, a sizable market, but its democratic failings have been felt in a powerful way.  A smaller country with similar problems of corruption and abuse of power is simply not going to be able to compete.   Your comparative advantage is your reputation.

Now, many factors have played a role in the success of Mongolia’s democracy, but there’s no doubt in my mind that a free media has been front and center.  You’ve also faced a question every young democracy must answer, when it suddenly finds itself with dozens of new publications and TV and radio channels operating with few rules or traditions to guide their actions:  how do you protect media freedom while encouraging media responsibility?  This is a hard question.  I would just leave you with this advice:  Every country has good journalism and bad journalism.  Every country has truth and falsehood in its media.  But the government should not be the one deciding the difference.  And the answer to bad journalism is not to put journalists in prison, even if we think a particular story they’ve published is untrue. Because when governments have the power to do that, they tend to use it against journalists who criticize them – against journalists who are just doing their job.  A far better answer is to encourage the media to adopt high standards of its own, and to police them through strong mechanisms of self-regulation.

In your 25th year of democracy, the United States is eager to help you think through these challenges and build on your achievements thus far.  We thank you for your commitment to democratic freedoms and for your leadership. You’ve set a powerful example not just in Asia but around the world, and I am certainly not alone in recognizing the value of our partnership.  I would like to echo Vice-President Biden’s comments when he visited your country in 2011, which still ring true.  He said we are “very proud to be considered a ‘third neighbor.’  And, like any good neighbor should, we’ll continue to do our part to support Mongolia’s political and economic development.”

On our panel today, we have Ms. Dunja Mijatović, OSCE Special Rapporteur for Media Freedom, Ms. Oyundari, Director of Mongolian National Broadcaster, and Mr. Jargalsaikhan, famous Mongolian political and economic journalist.  Thank you for joining us today and sharing your expertise as we examine the relationship between democracy and free speech in Mongolia.

Now I’m going to turn the floor over to the excellent panel assembled here today to discuss some of these issues.   Please join me in welcoming them.