NOTHING TO HIDE?

Press clubs stymie free trade in information: EU

When Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi made his historic visit to North Korea on Sept. 17, the only foreign journalists allowed to accompany him were a select few from the United States and South Korea.

None of the Tokyo-based foreign correspondents from the 15 member states of the European Union was allowed to accompany Koizumi, the first Japanese prime minister to go to North Korea, for his talks with Kim Jong Il.

This is probably what led European Commission representatives in Japan to call for the abolition of “kisha clubs.”

These are the press clubs set up at national and local government offices, as well as police headquarters, that offer virtually exclusive memberships to mainstream Japanese news organizations.

Briefings and news conferences are generally restricted to kisha club member news organizations.

The European Commission stated in an Oct. 17 report, titled “EU Priority Proposals for Regulatory Reform in Japan,” that the kisha club system has “impeded reporting outside Japan of events of widespread international interest and significance.”

“Remove the restraint on free trade in information by abolishing the kisha club system.”

As an example of the kisha club system impeding coverage by foreign journalists, the report cites without elaboration the 2000 murder in Japan of Briton Lucie Blackman.

“By denying foreign correspondents firsthand access to briefings (at kisha clubs), the system acts as a de facto competitive hindrance to foreign media organizations,” the report says.

“It unfairly makes them slower to bring information to their audience than domestic organizations, and, unable to put questions on the spot, forces them to rely on secondhand information,” the report continues.

“In effect, the system works as a restraint on free trade in information.”

Bernhard Zepter, the new head representative of the European Commission in Japan, recently emphasized the importance of transparency within modern states and said the kisha club system is difficult to understand.

At a news conference marking his inauguration, Zepter said the Japanese system of closed clubs for reporters may backfire on the country and foreign journalists should be given free access to information.

“We think it is not in the Japanese interest,” Zepter said at the Japan National Press Club, suggesting that limited access to information in Japan is probably one of the reasons why an increasing number of foreign journalists are leaving the country.

Economic factors, however, may be another reason. The Oct. 29 edition of information magazine World Affairs Weekly states that since the bubble economy imploded in the early 1990s, coverage by foreign media groups operating in Japan has been on the decline.

The number of journalists registered with the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan was close to 400 during the bubble economy, but now there are only around 330, according to the weekly.

The value of news related to Japan declined quite a while ago due to Japan’s economic slump and other factors, some analysts said.

In advocating a transparent system, Zepter argued that Japan has “lots to offer to our (international) society,” but nothing to hide.

But more foreign journalists are now heading to Beijing rather than Tokyo.

“We are expressing our concerns and preoccupations. For us, it is an important point,” Zepter said in reference to the European Union’s proposal to abolish the kisha clubs.