Bonn, Germany: “The training allows us to learn about western theories of journalism,” says Mr. Nyamjav, editor of the Erkh Choloo (Freedom) newspaper. A UNDP project in Mongolia has brought journalists from Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital, to run an investigative journalist training programme for their colleagues in the rural community of Moron. The programme introducing investigative journalism to students consists of a workshop and various field assignments. Here, I report on day two of the training.
Eleven student journalists and the two trainers, Ms Oyunsetseg and Mr. Batbold from the Press Institute of Mongolia, quickly run through the day’s schedule. The journalists will spend the next two hours interviewing subjects for their stories. All the journalists say this is the first time they’ve explored in detail this sub-category of journalism. Not all the students are experienced journalists, but this is made up for by the quality of the two facilitators, both of whom keep the workshop lively.
The debate begins over the choice of stories. One team has chosen to look at poverty alleviation projects at the Bak (local government) level. They want to write a story looking at poor accountability for loans, the practice of nepotism and the ability of recipients to start small businesses. The team investigating power black-outs wants to conduct further interviews with the poorest people affected by such interruptions.
Back at the offices of the Erkh Choloo newspaper, editor Nyamjav discusses the week’s news with his graphic designer. The skills of the staff impress me. While they have only one computer and barren offices, the paper won an award from the Press Institute for being the best local paper in 1997. The newspaper will be cut off from local government subsidies for printing at the end of this year and is already making plans to find other sources of revenue. Nyamjav is pleased with the results of the UNDP project, saying: “It has noticeably changed our stories – I know how to criticise reporters and push them to be more investigative.”
Outside Ulaanbaatar a petrol shortage has hit hard. At a Moron filling station drivers patiently wait for new supplies to arrive or to receive their ration. Not only is there no fuel, there is also no electricity. On a field assignment the journalists investigating the power black-outs interview Mr. Sukhbaatar the power station director who says 3,500 households owe the utility Tug 27 million (US$27,411). It is the poorest households that are unable to pay in the Ger districts. A Ger is a Mongolian felt tent. Without payment, their power is cut off.
I am asked to conduct a one-hour discussion of my experiences as an investigative journalist in Canada and England. The debate afterwards is lively. A common question is how to deal with pressure from government and corporations to alter the content of stories. The difficulty the regional journalists have in distributing newspapers to remote communities is a common complaint. They ask how international donors could help in this matter, pointing out that in the past the government subsidised newspaper distribution to a greater extent. They would like to be linked with international journalists in some way, preferably through an association.
I worked as a journalist for magazines and newspapers from 1991 to 1997 in Canada and the United Kingdom and as a radio host for a weekly spoken word interview programme, Word of Mouth (CKLN-FM).
This included working as an investigative journalist for Now Magazine, “Toronto’s alternative news and entertainment source”, as a Medical and Health Correspondent for Today’s Seniors, and as an investigative journalist and reporter for two Financial Times newsletters, New Media Markets and Screen Finance.
Could it be possible to do high-quality investigative journalism in the context of a shrinking economy undergoing austerity, and where the media sector is contracting and consolidating around a small number of media companies? Is it possible to launch new media products in the face of a contracting economy and reach new audiences and create new markets?
In Canada, the early to mid 1990s were the years of government austerity and economic crisis. After the crash of 1989/1990*, institutions came under great stress. Health care, for example, was pitched into a period of turmoil and change. Drawing on my experience working in the health sector (Princess Margaret Hospital/Ontario Cancer Institute), I covered this crisis in many stories for various publications, in particular Today’s Seniors.
The Canadian economy severely contracted and unemployment was at 11.4 per cent by 1993 (Statistics Canada), and as Statistics Canada says, “Because employment recovered at a snail’s pace after the recession of the early 1990s, the decline in the unemployment rate was delayed until 1994”.
The media in general could not avoid the wider economic crisis. According to the book The Missing News: Filters and Blind Spots in Canada’s Press (Robert A. Hackett and Richard S. Garneau, Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, University of Toronto Press 2000), Canada’s media was also in a crisis throughout the 1990s, as declining resources, staff layoffs and media closures reduced the breadth and depth of news coverage. Canadian media as a whole also has a “great dependence on advertising, which accounts for more than 70% of daily newspaper revenues, about 64% of magazine revenues,” which means there is enormous pressure to only publish stories that do not upset advertisers. And monopolies exert great control over news content in Canada: “In the United States, ten companies control 43.7% of total daily newspaper circulation. By contrast, in Canada since 1996, one single company controls a comparable share of the media pie.”
The impact of this crisis was summed up by Jeffrey Simpson in the book The Missing News, where he said newspapers are “shrinking in size, personnel, ambition and, as a consequence, in their curiosity,” …. “I believe the result has been a diminution in quality.” (p64)
This is the context in which, ironically, it was possible to flourish as a much-sought-after investigative journalist who could get the story and get the quotes and as an editor. And it was also a time for opportunity, in particular as new media rose in importance, from cable and satellite television, to the rise of the Internet.
I broke original stories for Now Magazine as a member of their investigative reporting team, for Today’s Seniors as its Medical and Health Correspondent, and as a reporter for two Financial Times newsletters in London, UK. I also broke original stories as a freelancer for many other magazines and newspapers, including Hospital News, The Toronto Star, This Magazine, The Annex Gleaner, Flare, The Financial Post Magazine, Canadian Living, and others. I drew on strong contacts in health care, media, politics, international relations and the military.
I was an editor for magazines, newspapers and newsletters as well, gaining invaluable experience and contacts. This included as Editor-in-Chief for start-up youth publication, Watch Magazine (see Case Study 2), and as Features Editor for Id Magazine (see Case Study 3).
Themes covered included the uses – and abuses – of data, the impact of military engagements to uphold international law, how to re-structure health care when budgets are tight, with populations ageing, and technology and scientific advances quickly expanding options, the emerging new media world of cable and satellite television and the Internet, the sexual revolution 2.0, urbanization and how it re-shapes politics and community, international development, and youth culture.
Story highlights include covering data concerns over Canada’s border screening measures, questions about the air quality of aircraft cabins, the debate over airstrikes in Bosnia, scandals involving peacekeepers in Somalia and reporting on the UN peacekeeping mission in Haiti, reforms to medical education in Canada, innovators in health care, the tug of war over health care spending during austerity measures, London, UK designers, the growing role of Nordic countries in cable and satellite television, the film financing scene in Europe and the UK, the new sexual revolution and its impact on cable and satellite television and the rising Internet, changes to Canada’s media industry, and Toronto’s embracing of the megacity concept and the political battles it sparked.
I edited newsletters and newspapers aimed at specific communities, from Canada’s medical history community to part-time students. And had the privilege of helming a start-up youth magazine as its Editor-in-Chief to its commercial success (see Case Study 2).
* “The last two recessions in Canada occurred in 1982 and 1990. … The most recent Canadian recession began in the second quarter of 1990 and over the next 12 months GDP fell by 3.2%. … The recovery from this recession was unusually slow; there was almost no growth between mid-1991 and mid-1992. This slow recovery was export driven.” (The Canadian Encyclopedia)
“In early 1994, Canada’s economic situation was not that favourable—our economy was facing some rather serious problems.
“… the recession here was more severe than in the United States.
“Working their way out of these difficulties was disruptive and painful for Canadian businesses. Defaults, restructurings, and downsizings became the order of the day. With all this, unemployment took a long time to recover from the 1990–91 recession and, in many instances, wages and salaries were frozen or reduced (Bank of Canada: Canada’s Economic Future: What Have We Learned from the 1990s?)
A small sample of published stories with links is below:
1991: Begin career as investigative journalist and editor.
1992: Work as a Medical and Health Reporter for Today’s Seniors and as an Investigative Journalist for Now Magazine. Work as Editor and Writer for the Hannah Institute for the History of Medicine’s newsletter.
1993: Published in many publications, including The Toronto Star, Canadian Living and This Magazine.
1994: Work on re-launch of Watch Magazine 2.0 and its expansion (see Case Study 2).
1995: Work as reporter for two Financial Times newsletters in London, UK.
1996: Work on re-launch of Watch Magazine 3.0 and its expansion. Begin work at Id Magazine as its Features Editor (see Case Study 3).
1997: Begin two-year assignment with the United Nations mission in Mongolia (see Case Study 4).
“David South … proved himself to be a penetrating, thorough and hard-working journalist. He produced a lot of very good stories …” Neil McCartney, Editor, Screen Finance, Telecom Markets and Mobile Communications, London, UK
By David South (Canada), UNV Information Officer, UNDP, Mongolia
UNV News #78 November 97
After seven years of transition to a market economy, Mongolia – a former satellite of the Soviet Union that has had a democratic government since 1992 – has been profoundly changed. Where it once had a rigid communist government and few contacts with the west, Mongolia has pursued rapid economic, political and social liberalisation. Mongolia has a small population – 2.3 million – spread out over a vast territory wedged between Russia and China.
Communication has in many ways deteriorated over the past seven years as the old communication networks from the communist era have not been fully replaced by the private sector. More and more it became apparent that government and the private sector were almost working in the dark in understanding how transition has affected Mongolians.
In partnership with the Mongolian government, UNDP initiated the researching of Mongolia’s first human development report back in the middle of 1996. It was launched on September 5 of this year, with UNVs playing a key role. To lead the team in producing the report, British poverty specialist and UNV Shahin Yaqub was brought in. Only 29-years-old – one of the youngest UNVs in Mongolia – Yaqub joined a rapidly expanding UNV presence in the country. There are now 24 international UNVs and 26 Mongolian UNVs deployed throughout the country in UNDP’s projects.
The thirst for expertise in Mongolia – a country undergoing the growing pains of transition to a market economy – has placed high demand on UNVs. UNVs occupy senior roles in all of UNDP’s projects.
The 1997 Mongolian Human Development Report is a prime example of the important goal of capacity building conducted by the UNDP. For Yaqub, the report’s principal author, it was like starting from scratch. A poverty research office had to be set up before the work could begin. A team of Mongolia’s top statistical researchers had to be trained in the latest methodologies for social research.
Yaqub was excited by the project. He said: ”There was no office when I first came. We had to organise the office to understand who does what and basically create the focal point for poverty analysis in Mongolia”.
Yaqub also had some of his basic assumptions tested. The small population of this country – only 2.3 million – had meant the previous communist regime was able to build up a large archive of statistics on the population. A good portion of the information was not up to international standards, but it potentially represented a wellspring of data to start from. “Mongolia is number-rich. To even have that kind of data is very rare for a developing country. But unfortunately we found all this information was stored on Russian mainframe computers that didn’t work anymore!”
During the actual production of the report, Yaqub was joined by three more UNVs: Mustafa Eric, a Turkish journalist working with the Press Institute of Mongolia, Jerry van Mourik, a Dutch journalist now working as the Support Officer to the United Nations Resident Co-ordinator, and UNDP Information Officer David South, a former journalist with the Financial Times in London, England.
The high-profile role played by media UNVs was crucial if the report was to not end up collecting dust on a government shelf. The report is a repository of essential and new information on the state of human development in Mongolia, including data showing rising poverty rates and serious threats to food security. Like all human development reports produced by UNDP, it was not meant to be a prescriptive tract, but a lubricant for a national debate on sustainable development in Mongolia. This altered the design and presentation of the report.
Instead of looking academic, the report took on the appearance of a magazine, from its cover to colourful children’s paintings inside. UNV Mustafa not only assisted with the report’s design and production, he also used his contacts in the Mongolian media to ensure the report was distributed across the country. UNV van Mourik assisted with publicity, including producing an emotionally-charged television commercial weaving together vignettes from Mongolia’s recent history to tell the story of human development.
Already in its second print run in both English and Mongolian, the report has been adopted as their study guide by Mongolians wanting to learn English.
“Mongolia is a rewarding place to work,” said Yaqub. “As a technical specialist and UNV, what you bring to the job is valued. I researched poverty for five years before coming to Mongolia and I felt I had something to contribute. But I also realised I had something to learn as well. You always have to keep in mind you are bringing your own baggage to the job – be it cultural, emotional or intellectual. Coming from an academic background, I was not afraid to be told I was wrong.”
Yaqub, who had worked in poverty analysis in the Philippines and Bangladesh before coming to Mongolia, will never forget the country that sparked his new passion: horses.
“You give up things as a volunteer – your time, your income, all the things you took for granted back home. But what you give up is compensated by rewarding work and good friends. When I learned to ride a horse, I can place it directly and clearly to Mongolia – that memory will always be with me.”
Just before Yaqub left Mongolia for work with UNDP in New York, he participated in a series of public debates in one of Mongolia’s poorest provinces, Khuvsgul aimag. The public debates are used to introduce the report to the grassroots while sparking discussion on sustainable human development.
Starting from scratch – The challenge of transition
Résumé en Français
UNV News #78 November 97
Sept années de transition vers une économie de marché et une libéralisation rapide tant économique et politique que sociale, ont profondément transformé la Mongolie, vaste territoire à faible densité de population bordé par la Russie et la Chine. Les communi-cations se sont fortement détériorées et ni le gouvernement ni le secteur privé ne se trouvaient manifestement en mesure d’évaluer l’impact de la transition sur la population. En collaboration avec le gouvernement, le PNUD a donc procédé à l’établissement du premier rapport sur le développement humain en Mongolie, publié en septembre de cette année.
Plusieurs VNU parmi le nombre croissant de volontaires actuellement en poste en Mongolie au sein de projets du PNUD – 24 internationaux et 26 nationaux – y ont pris une part prépondérante, tout particulièrement Shahin Yaqub, spécialiste britannique en recherche sur la pauvreté. Pour Yaqub, puis pour ses trois collègues VNU Mustafa Erik, Jerry van Mourik et David South, le défi consistait à partir de rien – pas de bureau, une base de statistiques existante… mais sur des ordinateurs russes hors service – pour mettre sur pied un rapport riche en informations qui, une fois terminé, n’irait pas dormir sur l’étagère d’un bureau gouvernemental mais servirait de base à une action durable à l’échelon national. Grâce au format adopté – un magazine abondamment illustré – , à sa présentation par les médias – notamment la télévision – et à sa diffusion à travers le pays entier, c’est chose faite. Le rapport, imprimé en anglais et mongol, sert même de guide aux Mongoliens étudiant l’anglais.
Pour Yaqub, qui a depuis rejoint le PNUD à New York après avoir participé à une série de débats au sein d’une des provinces les plus pauvres de Mongolie destinés à promouvoir un développement humain durable, ce fut une expérience unique en son genre.
S’il a fait bénéficier la Mongolie de son expertise, il considère qu’il a retiré tout autant de son affectation: un travail gratifiant, de nouveaux amis – et en particulier une toute nouvelle passion, celle des chevaux.
Starting from scratch – The challenge of transition
Resumen en Español
UNV News #78 November 97
Después de siete años de transición hacia una economía de mercado, Mongolia goza hoy de un crecimiento económico, político y de liberación social, con una población de 2.3 millones de habitantes esparcidos sobre un extenso territorio ubicado entre Rusia y China. Su sistema de comunicación no es del todo satisfactorio, ya que la antigua red usada durante el comunismo no fue reemplazada completamente por el sector privado, sin embargo poco a poco el gobierno así como el sector privado comienzan a percatarse de la repercusión. En colaboración con el gobierno en Mongolia, el PNUD inició su trabajo de investigación sobre el desarrollo humano y realizó su primer informe sobre Mongolia que fue presentado el 5 de septiembre de este año.
El grupo que tuvo que realizar el informe fue encabezado por el especialista británico en asuntos sobre la pobreza y voluntario de NU, Shahin Yaqub. Actualmente hay 24 voluntarios internacionales y 26 nacionales, su labor juega un rol importante en la realización de los proyectos del PNUD. Para la realización del informe, Shahin tuvo la colaboración de otros tres VNUS, Mustafa Eric, Jerry van Mourik y David South, todos periodistas. El informe es un compendio de información esencial y actual sobre el estado de desarrollo humano en Mongolia. Para no parecer académico el informe se ilustró como una revista, con dibujos y pinturas infantiles. Mustafa no solo asistió en el diseño y la producción, también usó sus contactos dentro del ámbito periodístico local para hacer circular el documento dentro del país. Jerry por su parte se encargó de un aviso de televisión. Ya en su segunda edición el documento fue publicado en ambos idiomas, inglés y mongol, y es usado como libro de estudio entre los mongoles que quieren aprender el inglés. Para Shahin Mongolia es un lugar gratificante para trabajar. El siente que con su trabajo y sus esfuerzos pudo ayudarle a la población y además tuvo su gran satisfacción personal, no solo en su labor, también en el sentido humano. Aquí aprendió montar a caballo, lo cual será para siempre relacionado con Mongolia.