Because “kisha” press clubs provide easy access to information provided by the central and local governments and business associations, membership is considered essential for mainstream news organizations.
But the foreign press as well as Japanese magazines often criticize the press club system, complaining it shuts them out of news conferences and briefings, and can be a way of spoon-feeding the press with tightly controlled information.
Following are some basic facts about press clubs and problems with the system:
What is a press club and when was the first one formed?
A press club is a group of major news organizations, including national daily newspapers, key TV stations and wire services, that cover stories at government offices and industries. There are hundreds of press clubs nationwide.
The first club was organized in 1890, when the Imperial Diet opened its first session. Because reporters were not allowed to cover Diet sessions in those days, they reportedly formed a media group to jointly pressure the government for access.
What privileges do press clubs have?
To get information as quickly as possible, press club members are given space in government and industry buildings, including those of the prime minister, the Diet, ministries, local governments, police, the Tokyo Stock Exchange and the Japan Business Federation (Nippon Keidanren). Members get to attend the routine press briefings.
The member companies pay a monthly fee of up to 600 yen per person to the press clubs, according to the Japan Newspaper Publishers & Editors Association.
How does a media company become a member?
A news organization must belong to the Japan Newspaper Publishers & Editors Association or a similar body. It must also be recommended by at least two press club member organizations to be considered for membership at a general assembly of the press club it seeks to join.
What happens when a member breaks press club rules?
When, for instance, a member writes a story based on an off-the-record meeting with other members and government officials, the member organization may be barred temporarily from participation in club activities.
If a news organization names a briefer who asked not to be identified, or jumps the gun on a story embargoed until a later date, a letter of apology must be submitted to the press club. Each club may have its own rules for reprimanding a member.
Has exclusivity been a problem with press clubs?
Press clubs are often criticized for shutting out foreign and Japanese magazine reporters from news conferences, briefings and off-the-record chats with senior government officials.
For example, in the case of the 2001 massacre at an elementary school in Ikeda, Osaka Prefecture, some reporters were barred from police briefings because they were not members of the local police force’s press club. Officers briefed nonmembers about the attack after releasing information to press club members first.
Critics say press clubs remain exclusive because they want to maintain control over access to information. But due to mounting criticism, they have become more open to nonmember news organizations.
What press club access does the foreign press have?
Many foreign media organizations, including Reuters, the Associated Press and Bloomberg, are now members of some Tokyo press clubs, with seats and the same privileges.
But it took a lot of time and energy to join because they had to negotiate with press club members and get recommendations from member companies.
Nonmember news organizations can attend briefings as observers if they can get approval from press club members. Observers are not allowed to ask questions during news conferences.
Magazine and Web media reporters and freelance journalists have been essentially barred from press club news conferences as observers.
How have the foreign press and domestic magazines reacted to this situation?
They have kept up constant pressure on the government to allow access to official information, including the right to attend news conferences and briefings, and have urged press clubs to allow their reporters to become members if they want.
In a 2003 statement, the European Commission said Japan’s press club system serves as a trade barrier, excluding foreign correspondents from access to news conferences and briefings.
What are the merits and demerits of the press club system for authorities, press club members and readers?
The system lets government offices and businesses swiftly provide press releases to major news groups, saving reporters time in the reporting and writing process.
The newspaper association says that by forming press clubs, media organizations have historically pressured often-reluctant government offices to disclose information, which has benefited readers.
But critics say a major portion of the content in Japanese newspapers and news shows on TV is a simple regurgitation of announcements and releases provided to press clubs by the government and businesses. In addition, they claim the system encourages reporters to form cozy, or at best nonadversarial, relationships with government officials, businesses and lawmakers.
The convenient access to information and the relations with authorities may discourage reporters at the press clubs from carrying out investigative reporting and make them reluctant to criticize authorities, the critics say.
Are there any moves to abolish press clubs?
In 2001, then Nagano Gov. Yasuo Tanaka abolished two press clubs in the prefectural office. Despite protests from club members, Tanaka shut down the clubs and established a media center open to any journalist, including freelancers and those from magazines and Web sites. The system remained unchanged even after Tanaka left office.
* The Japan Times belongs to 34 press clubs, in Tokyo and Osaka.