Minister Ts.Oyungerel: Bat’s defamation charge is a threat to democracy and free expression
Minister of Culture Ts.Oyungerel has issued a scathing assessment of the recent libel case which saw her brother, Ts. Bat, imprisoned for some three months for criticizing Transport Minister A.Gansukh on Twitter.
In an exclusive interview with the UB Post, the Culture Minister blasted Minister Gansukh for what she sees as a significant threat to Mongolian democratic values. ”[This case] gives a very bad message about Mongolia … We have democracy, we have human rights, that all countries are struggling for. But if we lose it from within, what will we turn into? It is very bad news for Mongolian citizens, for Mongolia’s future, for Mongolian democracy.”
The minister highlighted a significant deficit in legal protection for those who come forward. “I think that this [case] shows that Mongolia doesn’t have any protection for whistleblowers,” she said. “It’s because of the deficits in the protections of our citizens, this is our misjudgment… My brother is a professional engineer who had a twenty-year long career in Mongolian aviation. That’s why he knows what’s happening in Mongolian aviation, and if he doesn’t like something, he will express it.”
Minister Oyungerel believes the case was politically motivated. “If I list all the punishments that (Bat) received over the course of the past two years, we can say that it was political,” she says. “Imprisonment is just a culmination of what is happening between the whistleblower and the Minister.”
Both the Culture and Transport ministers have come into conflict in the past as a result of her longstanding opposition to the privatization of MIAT, a policy then led by the Transport Minister. “When the Minister of Transport rallied strongly to privatize MIAT a few years ago, I was his main opposition in the Parliament,” said Minister Oyungerel.
The minister expressed dismay that her brother received a harsher-than-expected sentence. “I was so shocked to hear that it was imprisonment,” she said. “I didn’t attend the court hearing, but I did attend the reading of the court verdict. So when the judge read the verdict, she said that the State Prosecutor wanted to issue a fine… But the judge said, ‘but because Bat is unemployed, I order imprisonment.’ The lower your social status, the harsher the punishment – that was the logic in that verdict.”
The minister described the case as “unequal”, with Minister Gansukh using his government position as a means of leverage.
“I’m also shocked that the minister filed his complaint on his ministry’s letterhead – with the stamp of the Ministry – so that gives him an unequal power against a citizen,” Oyungerel said, “a citizen who doesn’t have a job, or doesn’t have other status, and doesn’t have government protection. So I think there’s an unequal fight going on, with power being used against citizens’ freedom, and I, of course, stand with citizens’ rights.”
Ts.Bat had been on medical leave when he was fired for speaking out against Gansukh, and his health is frail, according to his sister. “[Bat] is worried about his health, as he has a very strict dietary regime. That regime is now gone because of the prison regime… His condition will quickly deteriorate… His attorney asked if he could be placed in the prison hospital. Today (on Wednesday) I heard that he was moved there.”
Support has emerged online for Bat’s release, with small protests from the local Twitter community taking place in Chinggis Khan Square earlier in the week, and the hashtag “#FreeBat” receiving increased mentions online.
“Since when is social network deemed as press media. Which law mentions this? #FreeBat,” said Twitter user @iTulga.
“If a minister’s sibling Bat engineer is arrested, some nobody like us will just go hoop #FreeBAT,” said another, @BaagiiJr
Local free expression advocates also expressed their dismay at the ruling. Khashkhuu Naranjargal, executive director of Globe International, described the case as “a brutal action… completely against freedom of expression standards and democratic values.”
Transport Minister Gansukh has been publicly tight-lipped about the case since it first began last October. His office could not be reached for comment in relation to the ruling.
Minister Oyungerel also described Mongolia’s criminal defamation law as a question of Mongolian democracy. “Since 2000, I have been advocating to decriminalize defamation. But it still hasn’t happened that way. Our government actually submitted a draft law – a law on the criminal code – that would decriminalize defamation and libel. But the new law has not been passed yet,” she said.
“Minister Gansukh actually signed in support of the new draft as a Cabinet Member. So his philosophy is very different from his signatory, supposedly in support of decriminalizing defamation.”
Minister Oyungerel said that she will continue to speak out about the case and on freedom of speech, “On human rights, and on freedom of speech, I have always been outspoken – without the borders of party. I have defended any media, any journalist, without even asking who they are. For me, the right of freedom of speech is a lifetime goal.”
By. B.KHASH-ERDENE and LISA GARDNER
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