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Can NHK keep the air free?

Allowing government to dictate content of programming will just make a mockery of national broadcaster

by Trevor Clarke

The credibility of public broadcaster NHK is on the line over its handling of political interference by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

With Communications Minister Yoshihide Suga publicly ordering NHK to intensify news coverage of the North Korean abduction issue on international shortwave radio broadcasts, trust in the Japanese public broadcaster’s content is likely to slip.

Consider that between January to September 2006, of NHK’s 2,000 stories on North Korea, at least 700 were on abductees.

To order an increase on this figure appears excessive.

But it seems the government is determined to push this agenda, even at the expense of NHK’s ability to function as a respected global news service, a service that introduces an Asian perspective into the Western-dominated media sphere, much like Al-Jazeera has done for the Middle East.

For many media experts such a government move outside a time of war is extremely worrying.

Reporters Sans Frontieres’ Vincent Brossel says government pressure like this — combined with recent acts of violence by rightwing groups against the media and politicians, and the closed kisha club system — is the reason Japan’s press freedom index ranking has fallen in the past year. Indeed, RSF ranks Japan at 51 out of 168 countries.

“By law, the government can do it (order NHK), so the law must be changed,” Brossel says. “The independence of the public media is a crucial point in a democratic country.”

Doshisha University Professor of Journalism and Mass Communications Kenichi Asano is more firm.

“This is a very serious government action. It’s one of the most dangerous. I have to say that NHK did not resist, did not protest at all.

“NHK admitted that the Ministry of Telecommunications already proposed or asked them to report the abductions cases in 2003. They admitted that they influenced NHK.”

There have also been other well-reported incidents that bring into question NHK’s independence from political interference.

At the beginning of last year, it was revealed that senior NHK officials had in 2001 met with then deputy chief cabinet secretary and current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Together with LDP lawmaker Shoichi Nakagawa, they told NHK to delete part of a television program scheduled for airing the next day. The program was partially censored.

NHK management has also previously stated that it is “normal practice” for the content of potentially controversial programs to be discussed in advance with selected politicians.

This does not bode well for the independent and impartial reputation that NHK has striven to achieve since it was established. It also severely undermines those journalists and editors working diligently under the NHK banner.

“This (order by the communications minister) is against Article 21 of the Constitution because this article prohibits any kind of censorship, and free expression is protected in the Constitution without any conditions,” Asano says.

“Some people say there is a law (to check this) so it’s okay, but this law doesn’t consider the possibility of the government directly influencing any program on any issues. If this were the BBC, (journalists) would fight this together. It’s not happening here at all.”

When asked to comment on the themes to be covered in this article, NHK spokespersons declined, saying they were “too busy” at the moment. This reaction is surprising given that it is a public broadcaster with an obligation to be accountable for all its actions.

Of course, NHK is not alone is suffering from claims of political bias. Australia’s ABC is often criticized — mainly by rightwing commentators and the ruling Liberal party — as being too leftwing or antigovernment.

There are also concerns that the Howard administration is trying to influence the broadcaster’s independent culture and reign in government criticism by handpicking board members that are critical of the ABC.

Meanwhile, Britain’s BBC has historically been the target of political agendas. During World War II, the government and military both sought to use the broadcaster to counter German broadcasts with propaganda of their own.

However, and this comparison is instructive for NHK and the LDP, the BBC management took the position that, “in the long run, a trusted news source for audiences at home and abroad would be a more potent weapon.”

They were proven right. It was this policy and attitude that has made the BBC perhaps the most trusted international news service in the world.

Even Hitler’s cronies are alleged to have listened to the BBC because they could not trust their own news service.

Another edifying example of the differences between the broadcasters is the aftermath of the Hutton Report in 2004.

Hutton investigated BBC claims that the government “sexed-up” reports on Iraq’s military capabilities before the invasion and the tragic death of the BBC source for these reports, weapons expert Dr. David Kelly, who took his own life.

When the inquiry determined the BBC’s accusations to be unfounded, the BBC’s chairman, Gavyn Davies, its director general, Greg Dyke, and the journalist at the center of the allegations, Andrew Gilligan, all resigned.

Subsequently, many BBC staff and journalists took out a full page advertisement in The Daily Telegraph expressing their support for Greg Dyke.

It is hard to imagine such passion flowing from NHK, but Asano and many others are firm believers that NHK should follow the BBC’s example.

“I think NHK is kind of the middle of Japanese society, you know, so we have to democratize Japan. If NHK changes, our society will change too. So we have to watch NHK and protest.”

One only hopes that the LDP and NHK will quickly realize the irony and self-defeat of broadcasting propaganda into North Korea, that most rigid state of them all.

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