ULAANBAATAR Blank screens and red text warning about threats to press freedom interrupted Mongolian television late on Wednesday to protest against legal changes media groups say could harshly punish journalists accused of defamation ahead of elections.
With just three million people, Mongolia, best known as the birthplace of the Mongol emperor Genghis Khan, has long stood as an oasis of democracy, sandwiched between autocratic giant neighbours China and Russia.
Mongolia's political transformation since a peaceful revolution in 1990 has been a big plus for foreign investors eyeing its rich mineral resources.
But with presidential elections in June, rights groups and journalists have expressed concern the government is using increasingly heavy-handed tactics to suppress media and stifle dissent, including jailing reporters.
The government denies seeking to muzzle the press, saying the country is a democracy that values the freedom of the media.
But this week, parliament is due to debate law amendments that could impose large fines on reporters accused of defamation, in what media groups say amounts to a threat to make them stop reporting on issues like rampant corruption.
More than a dozen Mongolian television stations went dark for about one hour on Wednesday evening, some carrying only the text "Your right to know is under threat".
On Thursday, one of the country's largest newspapers, Unuudur, carried the same message on its front page.
Hashhuu Naranjargal, president of the civil-society group Globe International in Mongolia, said media outlets could face penalties of up to 200 million tugrik ($82,850) for violations under the amendments, while individual journalists and social media users could be fined 2 million tugrik ($828) each.
The fines were a form of "economic censorship", said Naranjargal, that politicians might abuse to protect themselves.
"The general political atmosphere is very negative about the protection of journalists," Naranjargal said.
"They just want to prevent negative information about themselves," she said about politicians.
Batbold Chimgee, a journalist for the website GoGo.mn, said the government had abused the libel law in the past to censor reporters.
She said the 2 million tugrik fine was equivalent to three months salary for many journalists.
"It's big money for journalists because Mongolian journalists don't make much money."
($1 = 2,414.0000 togrog)
(Reporting by Terrence Edwards; Editing by Ben Blanchard, Robert Birsel)