The freedom of media independence and moves by the Japanese government to clamp down on both access and expression of journalists and broadcasters have been called into serious question recently, with both veterans of the field and international experts here lambasting the weeding out of perceived violators and calling for change.
Reports of Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) under the stewardship of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe increasingly attempting to tighten its grip on media independence and expression have become more frequent and worrisome of late and such is the gravity of the issue here that David Kaye, a UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression concluded after a week-long visit here that media freedom was facing “serious threats” from the government.
Kaye, also a clinical professor of law at the University of California, following his investigations, found the direction of media in Japan also to be of particular concern, stating that he had heard personally from numerous journalists here that their efforts to independently report on issues deemed sensitive to the government had been hampered, leaving the journalists to feel concerned and in some cases worried.
Abe’s Internal Affairs and Communications Minister Sanae Takaichi stating in February this year that broadcast media outlets could be forced to cancel programs or discontinue their operations if their programs recurrently presented views deemed politically biased and ignore official calls to remain “politically neutral,” as stipulated in the broadcasting law, has rattled the nerves of media outlets here and journalists and paid credence to the notion that the government is clamping down on what and how information gets reported.
The minister’s controversial remarks have drawn a harsh backlash not only from independent journalists and recognized media outlets and broadcasters, who believe the remarks were directly aimed to intimidate and legislate freedom of speech, but, from a broader perspective, paint an increasingly alarming picture of the government’s agenda regarding the right to media impartiality and a forced state-led paradigm of what is deemed “fair” reporting.
Just one week after Takaichi controversial remarks were made, three well-known television presenters who had been critical of some aspects of the Abe administration were all unceremoniously ousted from their positions.
Despite Abe and other senior government officials such as Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga maintaining that the government upholds the virtues of freedom of speech in Japan including in the press, Kaye was unwavering in stating at an internationally-covered press conference in Tokyo early this week after his probe, that Japan’s broadcasting law should be amended.
Kaye said that Japan’s government should not be allowed to determine the paradigmatic framework, or dictate the definition of what is deemed to be “fair.”
The issue of the contentious state secrets law here that was ushered in by Abe in 2014 despite overwhelming public opposition, was also traversed by Kaye.
Those opposed to the law have criticized Abe for not implementing objective checks and balances to ensure that the public’s right to know and have access to necessary information will not be impeded by the law, stating that access will be severely limited as Abe, ultimately, plans to forge ahead in further expanding the role of the Self-Defense Forces at home and abroad, with such restrictions to information reminiscent of Japan’s wartime military secrecy initiatives, which allowed armed forces to act with impunity and beyond the scope of public scrutiny.
Political insiders have voiced major concern over the law, which, thus far, fails to specify what the government can and cannot disclose, meaning that it has, potentially, unrestricted authority to suppress vital information and not disclose it to the public, and Kaye, for his part, said the law should be changed.
He stated that the law should be amended to “eliminate any chilling effect on journalists,” while also taking aim at Japan’s cosy press club system, known here as “kisha clubs.” The clubs have been accused of being very selective as to which media outlets are granted exclusive access to information from government ministries and state-related departments at both national and municipal levels, with “kisha clubs” ostensibly serving as the government’s gatekeepers of information, or, loosely veiled puppets or mouthpieces.
Kaye said that Japan’s entire system of journalism and what he described as the “structure of media” does not permit journalists to “push back against” the government. The “kisha clubs” for example do not allow certain well-known Japanese magazines with notably high readerships and a highly investigative approach to journalism, direct access to government information.
Japan-based experts have also weighed in on the issue, with Jeff Kingston, director of Asian Studies at Temple University in Tokyo, saying in a recent editorial on the matter that the diminishing freedom of the media here has led to Japan becoming the odd one out among what it perceives to be its peers.
“With Japan hosting the G7 meeting next month, the press crackdown is an international black eye for Japan and makes it an outlier in the group,” Kingston was quoted as saying.
“The 2011 meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear power plant set the stage for the erosion of press freedoms. Japan’s slide in the rankings began with the incomplete coverage of the Fukushima meltdowns and the government’s efforts to downplay the accident; Tokyo Electric Power Company and Japan denied the triple meltdown for two months,” Kingston added.
“Sadly, the Japanese media went along with this charade because here it is all about access. Those media outlets that don’t toe the line find themselves marginalized by the powers that be. Since Fukushima, Japan’s culture wars over history, constitutional revision and security doctrine have been fought on the media battlefield,” Kingston concluded.