Ulaanbaatar, 26 November 2020
Globe International Center (GIC) is deeply concerned over the recent restrictive measures imposed by the government in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. These measures are enforced in addition to the already obstructive legal restrictions on freedom of expression.
On 11 November 2020, authorities have tightened measures to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic after the confirmation of the first local transmission in the country. It also announced a strict lockdown order until 1 December which may be extended for another two weeks.
While the GIC acknowledges the actions of the government and the State Emergency Commission to protect the public health in times of crisis, it strongly believes that any emergency measure to prevent the spread of COVID-19 must be “proportionate, necessary, time-limited and non-discriminatory” as the international community continually urges.
GIC stresses that the newly amended laws and criminal defamation provisions strictly restrict the critical and investigative journalism reporting necessary at this time. The newly adopted laws on COVID-19 response, along with the amended laws on extreme situations and on disaster prevention, have introduced provisions that risk censoring the media and reducing the space for civic engagement, both in online and offline spaces. These laws prohibit citizens from disseminating false information and oblige the media to deliver “accurate and reliable information to the public.”
In January 2020, the provision 6.21 of the Law of Administrative Offenses regarding defamation was abolished, but concurrently a new provision (Article 13.14) on false information was introduced to the Criminal Code. The provision prohibits the dissemination of obviously false information, causing damage to the honour, dignity or business reputation of legal entities. Those breaching the law shall be punished by “a fine equal to 450 to 1300 unities (approx. US$ 160-460), 240 to 720 hours of community service or travel restrictions for a period of one to three months.” Earlier in April this year, ARTICLE 19 and Transparency International raised their concern over the newly introduced criminal defamation provision and urged the Mongolian government to respect freedom of expression, media freedom and the right to information.
Since this provision became effective, there were eight court decisions published in the court’s public portal. GIC’s monitoring of these cases indicates that more than a half of the plaintiffs were politicians and public officers, and all of the defendants were found guilty of spreading false information defaming the honor and reputation of the complainants. Almost all of the cases were related to online and social media posts, comments, and expressions. Certainly, the new criminal defamation provision can be used by those in power to shield their misconduct and suppress both offline and online criticisms. There is no clear definition within the above-mentioned laws of what constitutes “false information” and “catastrophe, threats or other risks posed to society” which eventually could lead to excessive censorship and silence any criticism of government actions in times of crisis.
On 23 September 2020, the National Police Agency set up an independent unit to combat false information with the function to investigate alleged false information spread through social networks that might threaten national security or harm the honor and reputation of individuals. On 25 November 2020, Deputy Chief of the National Police Agency, colonel J. Amgalan made a public statement that since the strict lockdown measures were taken after the confirmation of the first local transmission case on 11 November, the police has punished 590 individuals and legal entities and collected a fine of 200 million MNT (approx. US$70.200) and imposed arrest for a period from 7 to 30 days on 39 individuals for misleading others and spreading false information over social media.
In light of the emergency measures, the Communications Regulatory Commission (CRC), based on their procedure on preventing the online spread of disinformation regarding the pandemic, delivered on 11 November recommendations to news websites to close down the comments section under the news regarding COVID-19 and to avoid distributing obviously false information and the private data of individuals. The CRC said those who breach these recommendations would be blocked.
GIC, like any free expression and media-rights organization, believes that independent media and access to information play a crucial role in the fight against COVID-19. GIC therefore urges the Mongolian Government and the State Emergency Commission to recognize the fundamental role of media freedom during the COVID-19 pandemic and to avoid undue restrictions in their response to the coronavirus outbreak, to guarantee the free flow of information and to improve access to reliable and timely information.
GIC echoes the call of UN, OSCE and OAS experts for freedom of expression that content take-downs and censorship must only be executed when the principles of necessity and proportionality are met, and “any attempt to penalize information related to the pandemic can create distrust in institutional information, delay access to verified information and have a chilling effect on freedom of expression.”
Established in 1999, GIC is a non-governmental organization that aims to promote and protect freedom of expression, the right to information and transparency in public bodies, and to educate the public on civil and political rights and good governance.