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Japanese media under siege

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A hand of a reporter is raised as Japan's main opposition Democratic Party leader Yukio Hatoyama speaks to journalists during a news conference at the Democratic Party of Japan election headquaters in Tokyo 31 August 2009. Japanese voters swept the opposition to a historic victory in Sunday's election, exit polls showed, crushing the long-ruling conservative party and handing the novice Democrats the job of reviving a struggling economy. (Photo: Reuters/Issei Kato).

In Brief

Between 2012 and 2016, during Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's tenure, Japan plunged 50 places to 72nd out of 180 nations in Reporters Without Borders’ global media freedom ranking.


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Being a journalist in Japan does not put you at risk of beatings, imprisonment and murder like other countries ranked comparably low on media freedoms. But there are other ways to curtail press freedom and induce self-censorship, especially when editors, managers and publishers want to avoid the risks associated with confronting powerful interests.

Curtailing press freedom, encroaching on freedom of expression and purging critical journalists is hardly unique to Japan. Yet the situation has become significantly worse under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, with an intensification of the various media-restricting initiatives that were only episodically invoked by his predecessors.

This decline can be traced to the passage of ‘state secrecy’ legislation in 2013 along with a series of media-muzzling initiatives, orchestrated campaigns of harassment and the ousting of prominent television news anchors and commentators critical of Abe. In April 2016 these sweeping moves caught the attention of David Kaye — the UN special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression — who blasted the censorship, weak legal protections, press clubs and media intimidation in Japan.

The power of the media to make or break governments is precisely why the Abe government is keen to clip its wings and has been aggressively going after critics of government security policies. In an off-the-record meeting with journalists in February 2015, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga criticised coverage by TV Asahi. Later that month, Shigeaki Koga — a popular television pundit — was axed from TV Asahi’s Hodo Station news program.

Later in 2015, NHK 9 PM news anchor Kensuke Okoshi was ousted for his critical commentary and clash with an Abe crony. In 2016, three other prominent newscasters critical of Abe (NHK’s Hiroko Kuniya, TV Asahi’s Ichiro Furutachi and TBS’s Shigetada Kishii) left their jobs amid claims of government pressure.

The Abe government relies on select media organisations and right-wing groups to assail its opponents. In 2014 there was an orchestrated campaign, including death threats against reporters, by neo-nationalist groups denouncing the liberal newspaper Asahi Shimbun for its coverage of the comfort women story. This vendetta enjoyed public support from Abe.

In August 2014, the Asahi issued a ‘mea culpa’ for its coverage of the comfort women story, apologising for a handful of stories published in the 1980s and 1990s that relied on the discredited testimony of a WWII veteran. Right-wing outlets like The Yomiuri Shimbun and Sankei Shimbun pounced on this admission of wrongdoing even though they had also published articles relying on the same fabrications. They used this issue to discredit the Asahi and to promote the revisionist narrative that minimises, excuses or denies Japan’s history with comfort women.

To make matters worse, investigative journalism is becoming an endangered species in Japan. The Kisha (press club) system embeds journalists within ministries, agencies and other organisations they are assigned to cover, giving them privileged access to official sources. But in order to maintain this access they are inevitably handicapped from divulging most of what they know. The collaboration and collusion implicit in this system discourages ‘watchdog’ investigative journalism aimed at uncovering what authorities don’t want the public to know. Unfortunately the mainstream media embraces this system and the exclusive access it ensures.

It wasn’t always this way. The Asahi was previously a bastion of opposition to Abe’s agenda of constitutional revision and patriotic education. The newspaper’s critical commentary and investigative journalism won the Japanese equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize for its post-2011 investigative reporting on the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

But this watchdog journalism made it a target of the ‘nuclear village’ — proponents of nuclear power in industry, government, unions, media and academia. The Asahi’s withering coverage exposed the inadequate safety measures and cost cutting at the Fukushima power plant that compromised public safety, an inconvenient story as Abe wants to rev up Japan’s idled nuclear reactors.

In a controversial 2014 scoop based on an interview with the plant manager about the exodus of workers in the wake of the meltdowns, the Asahi overstated the situation, exposing itself to charges of sensationalism. Given the previous hammering that the newspaper received over its reporting on comfort women and experiencing a sharp decline in circulation at that time, management was in damage control mode. As a result, it retracted the exodus story, punished key reporters on the investigative team and disbanded it.

It is reassuring that Japan’s press continues to play a powerful role in keeping the public well-informed and critically assessing Abe’s revisionist project. But the purge of critics and decline in investigative reporting is a worrisome development that undermines Japan’s democratic identity.

Jeff Kingston is Director of Asian Studies at Temple University Japan and editor of the forthcoming Press Freedom in Japan (2017).

4 responses to “Japanese media under siege”

  1. A careful reading of Martin Fackler’s piece on Asahi’s retraction of its investigative reporting on the events at the plant in Fukushima suggests that the newspaper gave in to intimidation from the government in the midst of a lack of solidarity within its own organization and a lack of support from other newspapers for this kind of bold journalism. Abe and his cohorts were able to get Asahi’s directors to give up the fight by threatening that it would not get access to governmental officials if it continued to pursue its investigations.

    As for Japan’s ‘democratic identity,’ it seems clear to me as an admitted outsider that Abe has never had a strong commitment to democratic principles. His efforts to reinterpret the Constitution, for example, when he knew he did not have the backing needed for formally amending it demonstrate that the principles of democracy are secondary to him.

  2. “Between 2010 and 2016 Japan plunged from 11th to 72nd out of 180 nations in Reporters Without Borders’ global media freedom ranking.”

    Indeed it did but try to find out how RWB comes up with its rankings and you will draw a blank.

    Yes, its website has a description of the “methodology” used but it is singularly opaque. Moreover, the big decline in the ranking of Japan came under the allegedly reformist DPJ government, not the current LDP regime.

    The linkage to press clubs is illogical. They are not new and if anything there role has lessened over time.

    The article also seems fixated on the establishment media. The Internet has facilitated the rise of alternative news sources and the Japanese government has shown essentially zero interest in these.

    In contrast the Korean government has from time to time cracked down on Internet sources and even put on trial a Japanese newspaper correspondent for reporting what was being said on the Internet about President Park who is now facing impeachment. Yet, despite very overt efforts at news control, Reporters Without Borders rates Korea as having more press freedom than Japan.

    This alone should be reason enough not to take the RWB rankings seriously.

    Finally, I would note that that the author of this article has a regular column in the Japan Times in which he has repeatedly criticized the current government and belittled the Prime Minister Abe Shinzo.

    If the government was serious about controlling the press in Japan, it would have found ways to shut down the loss making Japan Times or get its highly anti-government stance changed. But, the author has published content virtually identical to this article in the Japan Times.

  3. Curious that both my posting and the published text have been changed with no indication that a change was made.

    The original text said

    Between 2010 and 2016, under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Japan plunged from 11th to 72nd out of 180 nations in Reporters Without Borders’ global media freedom ranking.

    Abe was in fact out of power in the two years prior to the 2010 ranking and did not come back into power until the last weeks of 2015.

    I have no problem with correcting the text provided that this is acknowledged. I do have a problem with my post being edited in the fashion that is has been here.

  4. It is good that we can read this online.

    The problem is that the majority of Japanese citizens do not take this situation as a problem. They have given the Abe administration a free hand mainly for economic sake, but it is also true that not a small part of those Abe supporters welcome him as a strong leader that Japan has rarely had.

    And the so-called “Net Right Wing (those who are not actually right wing activists but say things in line with the real right wing) are influencing especially the younger generations through their active speaking up on SNSs, helping build an atmosphere that any thoughts and attitudes that could be associated with the left wing are just too naive, and discretion lies with what Mr. Abe is trying to promote.

    The media freedom is not about right or left, but it is about the citizens’ participation in politics regardless of their political positions, which is at the core of political discretion.

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