Hopeful horizons: Global interest and new media platforms make for a fresh landscape for the future

For a country of just 3m people, Mongolia has a vast range of media outlets, from national newspapers and TV channels to local radio stations broadcasting to herding communities. The country’s advertising sector, meanwhile, has been growing fast on the heels of economic growth, along with increased foreign interest and subsequent investment. There has also been a diversification in advertising platforms, from traditional television ads to digital billboards.

The sector is not without its challenges, however. In advertising, competition is tough, while in press and broadcast media, a move towards more consolidation is likely thanks to the large number of titles with low circulation figures. Preserving press freedoms is also a key issue, as the sector seeks to assert its political independence, as well as its influence.

GOING PRIVATE: Following the end of the old one-party regime in 1989-90, there was a surge in new media launches. This began with the first independent newspaper, Shine Toly, which broke the government monopoly on news and information. The state’s grasp on television was then broken in 1994, with the launch of Eagle TV in Ulaanbaatar. Nevertheless, state-owned print and broadcast media continued to dominate during much of the early 1990s, with independent media often struggling to compete for scarce resources during tough economic times. However, once the economy improved and independent media took the lead, Mongolia saw the rise of privately owned newspapers, magazines, and TV and radio stations.

According to Mongolia Media Monitoring (MMM), a survey service run by the Mongolian Press Institute (MPI), a non-governmental organisation, there were five daily newspapers in 1999, along with five TV companies operating in the capital. By 2009, there were 15 daily newspapers and 18 TV companies, with the total number of media outlets standing at 392, some 50% more than a decade prior. The number of short wave radio stations in particular rose substantially, averaging 12 new channels a year from 2004 to 2008.

BY THE NUMBERS: By January 2012 – the most recent data available – MPI showed 469 media outlets existed, nationwide. These employed 4415 professionals, 1989 of whom were working as journalists or in other creative areas. Amongst these outlets were nine newspapers published in foreign languages and two in Kazakh, a minority language. English-language papers include the UB Post and Mongol Messenger. The media sector had also grown increasingly electronic, with 30 active media websites registered in January 2012, and five radio and 13 TV stations also available digitally.

Given the nature of the country’s demographics, with around 1m people in Ulaanbaatar, the capital is naturally the focus of most of these media outlets.

However, the remainder of the country is also important to media players, despite the fact that the population is highly dispersed amongst small communities whose livelihood is still often based on herding.

Communications between rural communities can also be difficult, given the country’s geography and its largely undeveloped transport infrastructure. This makes distribution of national newspapers and magazines a particular challenge. These characteristics have given Mongolia’s media a significant local segment, with around two-thirds of both radio and TV stations being based outside the capital in 2009, according to MMM.

LEGISLATION: The end of the 1990s was the key time for the development of much of the Mongolian media, as a new press law was drafted in 1998. This was done with the participation of many local and international non-governmental organisations.

While freedom of expression had already been guaranteed in the Mongolian constitution, the 1998 law on media freedom prohibited government censorship, while passing responsibility for content to media outlets themselves. In 2005 a further law was passed regarding public radio and TV, granting these media similar freedoms from government censorship and control. Next, in 2011 a law on information transparency and right to information was passed by parliament, guaranteeing citizens’ rights to access information, as well as obliging government institutions to boost their transparency – both of which are valuable advances in strengthening the media. Challenges remain, however. Reporters Without Borders, an international nongovernmental sector monitor, ranked Mongolia 100th out of 179 countries worldwide in terms of media freedoms in 2011, with the US Freedom House describing it as a country with “partial media freedom”. The use of libel laws against journalists was of particular concern, with several arrests occurring during the year.

REGULATION: Monitoring and regulating the broadcast media – including online segments – is the mandate of the Communications Regulatory Committee (CRC), established in 2001. The CRC consists of seven commissioners, all appointed by the prime minister, and is affiliated with the Information Technology, Post and Telecommunications Authority (ITPTA), the main government entity responsible for the information and communications field. In 2011 the ITPTA drafted a law on broadcasting, which it then submitted for consultation, a process that is still ongoing.

The CRC received jurisdiction over online media under the 2011 General Conditions and Requirements for Digital Content Law. This legislation stipulates that websites receiving more than 3000 visitors per day over a one-month period must register with the CRC. Further, if they offer user-generated content, then the CRC’s filtering service must be used, IP addresses published and any content not in compliance with the law subject to removal. The ITPTA and the General Intelligence Agency have also begun working on cyber security laws to regulate the burgeoning online media segment.

In print, there is little oversight other than that which applies to businesses in general, although criminal libel laws have been invoked on occasion to restrict print coverage. There is provision in law for the establishment of a self-regulatory authority for the sector, but this had not been implemented as of the end of 2012.

In terms of broadcasting content, at least 50% of weekly TV programming must be locally produced, with “local” also including content made by locally registered firms that may be subsidiaries of foreign companies. Advertising is also restricted on TV and radio to no more than 15 minutes every hour, with regulations to ensure clear starts and ends to ad breaks.

OWNERSHIP RIGHTS: There are currently few restrictions on media ownership in Mongolia, or requirements for transparency among owners, although moves are under way to legislate this area. In 2010 the Concept of National Security adopted by parliament included a provision requiring media owners to inform the CRC about the size of their stakeholders and the identity of licence holders. At the same time, the law banned the option to transfer licences to third parties, which forced Eagle TV – which had been set up by an American Christian group – to return its licence to the Bodi Group, the original holder, in 2011. The existing law against unfair competition also applies to the sector.

Although the shear range and number of media outlets works against monopolisation, the process of concentration of ownership is nonetheless ongoing. The largest media group currently operating, aside from the public broadcaster, is Mongol News Media Group (MNMG), established by its late president, Ts. Baldorj, in 1996. MNMG currently owns four newspapers, including a sports weekly called Tavan Tsagarig, the UB Post, TV Channel 25, mongolnews.mn, and ABM Co., a printing press distributor. Genco and Media Holding are also major media players.

DEMOGRAPHICS: The population is highly literate, as shown in a 2010 World Bank reporting a 97.3% literacy rate that year in residents aged 15 and older. Incomes are low, however, with GDP per capita at around $2470 in the fourth quarter of 2011, according to the finance ministry. Income differentials, though, are also wide, with a much wealthier middle class evident in Ulaanbaatar. In addition, expectations are widespread that income levels will rise dramatically in the years ahead. The first nine months of 2012 saw 23.5% GDP growth compared to the same period of 2011, with mining, commodity exports and government expenditure the main drivers. At the end of 2011 the Finance Ministry forecast that per capita GDP would hit $5000 in 2012. These factors could influence the advertising industry as it sees new opportunities for growth crop up.

PAPERS & POLITICS: The 469 media outlets counted in the MPI’s January 2012 report include 126 in print, 72 in radio, 149 in TV and 30 websites. In contrast with trends in other countries, newspaper circulation was up that month, year-on-year, by 26%, according to the MPI. Some 73% of newspapers sold were daily papers.

For many years, the three largest private dailies have been Udriin Sonin (or Daily News), Zuunye Medee ( Century News), and Unuudur (Today). The longest serving paper is Unen (or Truth) which began operating back in 1920, when it was launched by the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party (MPRP). The MPRP ruled the country under communism and is still a powerful political force, being in government for a majority of the post-communist years. A recent split within the party has seen some members break off into the Mongolian People’s Party (MPP) while another faction continues as the MPRP (see Country Profile). Newspapers have thus long had a clear political association in Mongolia, with some titles kept going despite low circulation figures thanks to subsidies by political outfits.

Udriin Sonin is owned by Udriin Medee, which is often associated with the Mongolian Democratic Party (MDP), the party of the current president and majority party in the ruling coalition. Unuudur, meanwhile, is owned by MNMG and is widely thought sympathetic to the MPP/MPRP. Zuunye Medee, which succeeded the state-owned Zasgiyin Gazryn Medee, is owned by ZM, an outfit the nature of which remains guarded.

As a result of the affiliation between media outlets and politics, circulation figures for these newspapers are difficult to establish. MPI figures for 2010 show circulation per issue for Udriin Sonin at 9000 copies, Zuunye Medee at 5800 copies, and Unuudur at 6300. Unen had a circulation of 5000. Figures for 2006 published in a 2009 Nordicom report on Mongolian media suggest that these numbers had slipped, with Udriin Sonin at 13,700 readers back then, Zuunye Medee at 8500 and Unuudur at 8000 in 2005. All these figures are, however, estimates.

Magazines, meanwhile, have also been a growth story in recent years, led by the two weekly TV listings guides, InfoTV and TV Zone. The former, published by B. Dulgoon, has a weekly circulation of 24,000, and the latter, published by UBS TV, of roughly 19,650, making them rivals to many newspapers. A third player is Nyam Garig, a Sunday magazine published by Mongol News, had a circulation of 6775 in 2010. The Mongolian Economy, which true to its name is a review of financial and business matters, in addition to Mining & Money and Mongolian Mining Journal, both of which publish in English and Mongolian, make up a growing sector.

The country also has a national news agency, MONTSAME, which issues news in English, Russian, Chinese and Japanese, in addition to Mongolian.

TELEVISION: Statistics from the ITPTA show that in 2011 there were 45 wired cable TV licence holders, serving 105,296 households; 37 wireless cable TV licence holders serving 35,154 households; 107 ultra-high frequency-based TV station licence holders, 18 of which are Ulaanbaatar, serving a total of 296,281 households; one direct to home TV licence holder, serving 98,900 households; two internet protocol TV licence holders, with services only available in the capital, to 5400 households; and two mobile TV licence holders, also only available in the capital and serving an unknown number of households. These figures might imply that some licence holders have not yet launched their services, while also suggesting that around 200,000 households did not have television access.

STATE BROADCASTING: The Mongolian National Broadcaster (MNB) is the state broadcaster, founded in 1967 and transmitting on the Asiasat satellite since 1991. MNB remains the most-watched broadcaster, with around 70% of total weekly viewing figures. As a public service channel, it transmits a variety of news, current affairs and entertainment programmes on MNB TV and MNB-2 TV. It has a mandate to provide equal services to all Mongolians, and to produce unbiased coverage. In 2008 the broadcasted faced allegations of bias in favour of the MPRP in its coverage of the elections in that year – allegations which it largely accepted.

Since then, MPI has evaluated MNB’s performance and found increased professionalism, with better coverage on minority communities and issues. The broadcaster also airs more domestic content than it has in previous years, much of which is produced in-house. According to a 2011 MPI report, the share of MNB-made programmes broadcast rose from 43.6% in 2007 to 84.5% in 2010, due to changes that commissioned an in-house production studio and moved MNB away from outsourcing production to private studios.

Starting out as a state channel, but privatised in 2007, the Ulaanbaatar Broadcasting Service (UBS) is also now a major TV player. UBS has one terrestrial and two cable channels, the former of which broadcasts news and documentaries, while the latter two show science, and culture and entertainment, respectively.

UBS shares a satellite channel with another private station, Channel 25 and MN25-II, both owned by MNMG. In addition, cable stations TV5 and TV9 were established in 2003 both of which are now two channels, TV5 and TV5-II and TV9 and TV9-II. The owners of the TV5 group are described as private, with little else known about them, while TV9 group’s owner is Media Holding Co. Both groups are widely considered as sympathetic to the MPP/MPRP. An additional nationally available TV station is Channel 1, which is owned by the Genco Group. Other channels with high viewing figures – meaning, they reached over 60% of the population on a weekly basis in 2010, according to the MPI – are MN25, Edutainment TV, SBN, NTV and TV8.

CHANGING LANDSCAPE: There are now also dozens of other channels regularly broadcasting either within the Ulaanbaatar area, or in specific regions of the country, such as RGB in Darkhan. Many channels broadcast on cable only, including popular stations such as the UBS cable networks, TV9-II and Olloo.

Recently, the TV scene was enhanced by the arrival of Bloomberg TV Mongolia. This is the result of a partnership between Bloomberg and the local Trade and Development Bank and broadcasts in Mongolian, along with a number of English-language programmes. The move illustrates the growing interest in Mongolia from Western companies and investors in particular. There is an expectation that the future may see more foreign-owned stations signing onto partnerships with media outfits within the country.

GOING DIGITAL: Looking ahead, the date July 31, 2014 has been set by the government for the switch over to digital TV. The government put together a roadmap for this move back in 2010 and has since been implementing it, setting aside MNT17bn ($11.9m) for the migration to digital broadcasting. The dispersed nature of much of the population means that providing the infrastructure for the switch over in rural areas is costly and time consuming. To overcome this challenge, the government has set aside a further MNT15bn ($10.5m) for the installation of broadcasting towers in the soums, or sub-provinces. To support citizens in making the switch, the state is has also established a MNT10m ($7000) fund to subsidise the purchase of digital boxes for poorer households.

RADIO ON: Given the disperse population throughout many communities in Mongolia, along with low incomes in many areas, it is perhaps not surprising that radio is also a highly popular medium. The low cost of licences and equipment – the 2009 Nordicom report estimated it cost just $5000 to launch a station – has also added to the popularity of the medium, with short wave stations in rural areas and FM stations in the capital in particular blossoming in recent years. Nonetheless, there remains only one truly national station, the MNB’s Mongolian National Public Radio (MNPR), which rebroadcasts in the aimags, or local provinces. Other private radio stations include Ikh Mongol 99.7, Life, Ineemseglel, Royal FM and Best. MNPR also broadcasts two Ulaanbaatar-only services, Radio 2 and Radio 3. Online media has also been growing, with many existing radio, TV and press outlets establishing an online presence. These players have taken advantage of growing internet connectivity, along with the popularity of mobile devices in the capital and other regions nationwide.

International Telecommunications Union statistics for December 2011 showed 355,524 internet users in Mongolia, with an 11.3% penetration rate. Interestingly, there was a 14.6% penetration rate for Facebook, with 458,700 users registered, suggesting multiple users of online platforms or multiple Facebook identities.

As incomes grow and connectivity improves, online media are set to take on a larger market share. Indeed, given the difficulties of distribution when it comes to hard copy, such as newspapers and magazines, soft copies of print media may well become a major source of news and information for rural Mongolians, once the rural IT infrastructure is improved (see IT chapter).

OUTLOOK: With continued economic expansion and rising incomes, the period ahead is likely to see greater sophistication in Mongolian media, along with increased competition. The market has a plethora of outlets serving a relatively small population, indicating that on purely commercial grounds, consolidation is likely as the market grows and matures. However, the political connections of many media outlets may help them survive, even when profit margins are tight. The growth of more online-based media is likely to follow the expansion of the country’s IT infrastructure and the growth of the Mongolian middle classes. Overseas investors may therefore be waiting in the wings for a key take-off level in personal wealth before making bigger commitments. The trick will be in judging just the right time to make the leap in what looks set to be fast-paced growth.

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The Report: Mongolia 2013

Media & Advertising chapter from The Report: Mongolia 2013

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