Controlling the Media in Japan

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Written by Griseldis Kirsch.

“Freedom of assembly and association as well as speech, press and all other forms of expression are guaranteed. No censorship shall be maintained, nor shall the secrecy of any means of communication be violated.” (Article 21, Constitution of Japan)

In spite of this clear embracement of Freedom of Press, Japanese politicians, most notably of the ruling conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP for short) have long been engaged in fights to maintain control over the media. How is this even possible in a country that has a democratic constitution in which all human rights are enshrined?

Looking back at the history of the mass media in Japan, censorship was a common practice before 1945. State-controlled censors made sure that the news that were put on the air, or printed, were in line with government policy. This, naturally, worsened during the Asia-Pacific-War (1937-1945), as Japanese failures had to be disguised as successes. During the Occupation (1945-1952), a democratic Constitution was drafted, yet ‘tradition’, or customary right, continued to co-exist alongside. The press clubs, kisha kurabu in Japanese, is one such example. Founded in the late 19th century, they are informal gatherings between authorities and media, accessible only by invitation. Generally, all media outlets would have access to the important press clubs, and they have become the most important means of passing on information. As a result, newspaper headlines in Japan, at least of the big national newspapers, are fairly similar, and articles tend to be descriptive rather than analytical – as they all share the same source of information.

While it is debatable that the press clubs themselves are a form of direct censorship, after all, it would be possible to spill the beans on the politicians based on the information acquired during these meetings, few journalists would bite the hand that feeds them, however sparsely, with the information they need to fill their columns. It thus at the very least encourages self-censorship, too controversial issues would not be reported if it endangers the relationship between the informant and the journalist. In addition to that, the Japanese Broadcasting Law spells out in its Article 4 that controversial topics must be covered from as many angles as possible – yet there is no independent watchdog that could ensure the coverage is truly unbiased and the control over broadcasting lies with the Ministry of the Internal Affairs and Telecommunications. Investigative journalism thus is a rare occurrence.

Consequently, although the Constitution guarantees Freedom of Press, mechanisms for media control are in place. The ruling LDP previously made use of those in 1993, after losing the general election. One television station, TV Asahi (which is affiliated with the left-wing newspaper Asahi Shimbun), had crossed the invisible line. Two commentators had asked viewers on air to stop voting for the LDP as they were suffering under previous corruption scandals. While these calls could have been put down as Freedom of Speech, the editor-in-chief of the news desk of TV Asahi admitted that these actions had had company backing. When he made those statements, the LDP had been voted out of office, but, crucially, the new government had not yet been formed. As a result, TV Asahi was accused of a violation of the broadcasting law and nearly lost its broadcasting licence.

It is this particular background that has to be kept in mind when looking at recent events in Japan. Ever since the Triple Disaster in March 2011, and more precisely, the nuclear disaster in the Fukushima Dai’ichi nuclear power plant, which happened under a government headed by the Democratic Party of Japan, it became evident that Freedom of Press may be enshrined in the Constitution, but that there is room for manoeuvre. Given the sensitivity of the topic, the glass walls and ceilings that engulf journalism in Japan became visible. The annual self-assessment of journalists in the Freedom of Press Index compiled by Reporters without Borders shows a steep drop for Japan, particularly since 2010. In 2009, Japan ranked 17, while in 2013 it was down to 53 and 2016, it was at 72. And, in April 2016, the UN Special Rapporteur David Kaye warned Japan about its freedom of press, particularly targeting the press club system as it hindered free journalism.

What else has happened that led to such an open criticism? Particularly considering that Japan aims to come across as ‘cool’ in its cultural productions? In 2012, the LDP came back into power and while reporting on Fukushima had already been difficult, the years 2013/14 gave first indication of a sea change in the relationship of the LDP with the media. The State Secrecy Law of 2014 was the first sign of the direction in which Japan is heading. Under this Act, state secrets must not be reported in the media, threatening journalists with jail if they do. As it is unclear what is designated as state secret, journalists are put at hazard. In the same year, the chairman of the public broadcasting station NHK also changed. Yet this position is nominated by the prime minister, and the current holder of the post is a close friend of Prime Minister Shinzō Abe’s – Momii Katsuto, who has made headlines by saying things like “the media should never be too far away from the government.”

But the crackdown was not limited to laws and the public broadcaster, it also extended into the world of private media coverage, and the left-wing Asahi Shimbun became the next target. Exemplary of this is the case of the former journalist Uemura Takashi, who was the first to report about comfort women (women held as sex slaves by the Japanese Imperial Army during WWII). It was claimed that he, and thus the paper he had worked for, the Asahi Shimbun were ‘fabricating’ the claims on the former comfort women. But this was not all, journalists from foreign countries report being asked by Japanese government officials to change the tone of their articles, if they are too critical.

Reporting on controversial issues thus becomes dangerous, so many choose not to run stories in the first place. The 2015 protests against the plans of the Abe administration to enact a bill about ‘collective self-defence’ which effectively hollows out the much revered Article 9 of the Constitution (the renouncement of war), was not widely reported in the main stream media – and if it was picked up, the reports were inaccurate, as I witnessed in July/August 2015 when the numbers were grossly downplayed. The latest in pursuit of the quest of directing public opinion is the simultaneous dismissal of three anchors from various channels in February 2016, including NHK and TV Asahi. Labelled as ‘time for a face change’, all three of them were known to be tough interviewers, and critical of the government.

With all mechanisms legally in place, it is easy to exercise control. However, a deep rift between population and government has opened up in Japan, and the traditional media, forced to toe the government line, have fallen into that rift. Yet while the Abe administration keeps on clamping down on Freedom of Press by making use of the press clubs and the broadcasting law, people turn towards the internet, more notably social media. This results in a more active civil society, strengthened by the agency over collecting and disseminating information in an otherwise tightly controlled media landscape.

Griseldis Kirsch is a Lecturer in Contemporary Japanese Culture at SOAS University, London. Image credit: CC by Mike George/Flickr.



Categories: Japan

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