Civil society raises concerns about detention of activist and restrictive social media law as anti-corruption protests erupt in Mongolia
Civic space in Mongolia is rated as ‘narrowed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor. Ongoing concerns raised by civil society include reports of harassment, intimidation and reprisals against human rights defenders, including those working to defend economic, social and cultural rights, by government authorities and private corporations. Further, provisions of the Criminal Code related to cooperation with foreign intelligence agencies (article 19.4) and sabotage (article 19.6) have been used to prosecute human rights defenders for legitimate activities. There are also concerns about press freedom.
In recent months, human rights groups have called for the release of jailed human rights defender Munkhbayar Chuluundorj. A new social media law - that could be used to silence online dissent - has been returned to parliament. There were protests against against corruption in the coal industry in December 2022.
Civil society groups call for release of human rights defender
On 11th January 2023, over a hundred human rights groups called on the Mongolian government to immediately release human rights defender Munkhbayar Chuluundorj who is serving a 10-year prison sentence on politically motivated charges related to his public criticism of the Mongolian government’s close ties with China.
As previously documented, the prominent activist was arrested in Mongolia in February 2022, part of what campaigners have said is a wider effort to "clean up" Beijing's critics in the country. A founding member of the World Mongols Poetry Association, Munkhbayar Chuluundorj is a well-known blogger, poet and human rights activist known for defending the linguistic, cultural and historical identities of ethnic Mongolians in China’s Inner Mongolia.
In September 2022 two handwritten letters from Chuluundorj – penned in the detention centre in June 2022 – were received by the Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Centre. In the letters, he pleaded his innocence and detailed how he believed the evidence against him had been fabricated in relation to his work to better the conditions of Mongolians.
Aurora Chang, International Tibet Network, said: “Munkhbayar’s unjust conviction and detainment is one in a long line of examples of the overreach of Beijing’s power outside of its borders, and the Chinese Communist Party’s disregard for the sovereignty of other countries and international law. Human rights activists, lawyers, and writers from all across the world are calling for Munkhbayar’s release, and it is imperative that the Mongolian authorities listen to them now in the interest of protecting democracy and freedom of expression.”
CHRD was proud to join more than 100+ groups in making this call:— CHRD人权捍卫者 (@CHRDnet) January 12, 2023
Over 100 Global Rights Groups Call for the Immediate Release of #Mongolian writer and activist Munkhbayar Chuluundorjhttps://t.co/HEomew5opz #FreeMunkhbayar pic.twitter.com/M6ObUuqe11
Civil society groups raise concerns about new social media law
On 20th January 2023, the Mongolian Parliament fast tracked a controversial social media law that is designed to ‘protect human rights in the social media space’. It was passed with 77 percent parliamentary support. The law would give powers to the government to control the content on social media platforms. It could ban users from posting information about any public official without express government consent. Any information shared in an online group of more than three will be subject to inspection, and the minister of internal affairs can shut off the internet.
According to reports, under Mongolia’s Public Centre for Combating Cyber Attacks and Violations, a special public relations unit will be formed to monitor and regulate social media content. The broad powers include ‘processing requests regarding restricted content and delivering decisions, recommendations, and requirements to social media providers.’
The new law lists various content violations including: ‘denigrating state symbols, national, historical and cultural values, culture and customs of Mongolia’, ‘extremist activities, undermining national unity, disclosure of state and official secrets, terrorist acts, crimes against human security and national security’ and ‘inciting and calling for crimes and inciting and calling for secession.’
Concerns about the law have been raised by civil society around the haste with which the new law was passed – less than three days after it was first presented to the public.
The Nest Center for Journalism Innovation and Development NGO and its Mongolian Fact-checking Center said that the process of passing the law violated the rule of law. lacked consultation with affected target groups, professional organisations and the public and did not follow due process. They were also concerned that this law will ultimately threaten the country’s freedom of speech as well as give sole power to the government to regulate social network platforms.
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) stated that by “giving the government body - and not a judicial or independent authority - such a power, would give political authorities the ability to make arbitrary and politically motivated decisions and to censor any online content they dislike’.
On 30th January 2023, the President vetoed the law, which means the law will return to parliament for another round of discussions.
Good news. President vetoes #Mongolia law that would have allowed for internet shutdowns and extreme social media controls. Parliament should follow suit and abandon law which threatens freedom expression. @NestMongolia @MFCCmn @Dulamkhorloo @Naanga https://t.co/Qko9gJlyfl— Michael Caster (@michaelcaster) January 30, 2023
Thousands protest against corruption in the coal industry
In early December 2022, thousands took to the streets in Ulaanbaatar and other cities across the country demanding accountability for a corruption scandal involving Mongolia’s state-owned coal company.
Investigators uncovered discrepancies in the amounts of coal exported from Mongolia to its main buyer, China. At least 385,000 tons of coal were unaccounted for between 2013 and 2019. The government said it had discovered the missing coal after comparing Mongolian export data with import data reported by China.
It was found that backroom deals were made over a span of ten years, with large profits being made by a few government officials. At the centre of the corruption case is Mongolia’s largest state-owned coal miner, Erdenes-Tavantolgoi JSC, where its executives and family members profited billions of dollars through embezzlement of coal revenue. Eight officials suspected of so-called coal theft have been arrested and are awaiting trial.
Mining accounts for roughly a quarter of Mongolia’s GDP, according to the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative. About half of its export revenue comes from coal.
Despite the arrests of those involved in the scandal, protesters endured below freezing temperatures to gather and camp out at the capital’s Sukhbaatar Square for over ten days to demand accountability and commitment to eradicating corruption. The demonstrators chanted and sang, stamping their feet to stay warm. Most of the demonstrators were college students and some were holding up placards.
On 6th December 2023, the second day of the protest, some tried to force their way into the State Palace in the capital, knocking down barriers and breaking windows. Police intervened and most protesters left the square a couple of hours later. Protests remained peaceful thereafter.
Thousands braved sub-zero temperatures on Monday, Dec. 5, in Mongolia's capital city of Ulaanbaatar to protest soaring inflation and allegations of government officials profiting from illegal sales of coal to China.— Radio Free Asia (@RadioFreeAsia) December 6, 2022
Credit: @reuters pic.twitter.com/gSeoFYwHBD