The Supreme Court reversed a lower court ruling Thursday, dismissing a suit filed by a women’s rights group that demanded NHK and two production companies pay compensation for altering the content of a documentary on Japan’s wartime sexual slavery.
The top court ruled the three media firms were not obliged to produce the TV program in accordance with the plaintiffs’ expectations because broadcasters have the right to edit their productions freely, in this case deleting the verdict in a mock tribunal on the sex slaves that found the late Emperor Hirohito and the government guilty.
It is generally recognized by the public that TV programs are altered from their original form as broadcasters edit them, the court said. Thus the trust and expectations the plaintiffs had for the program NHK aired are not subject to legal protection, it added.
The nongovernmental organization, Violence Against Women in War-Network Japan (VAWW-NET Japan), filed the suit in July 2001, demanding that NHK, subsidiary NHK Enterprises 21 Inc. and subcontracted producer Documentary Japan Inc. pay a combined ¥20 million. The demand was later raised to ¥40 million.
The program, aired in January 2001, concerned a citizens’ tribunal held in December 2000 on Japan’s responsibility for the ordeal of the “comfort women,” who were forced into sexual slavery for the Imperial Japanese Army during the war. VAWW-NET Japan was one of seven NGOs that organized the mock trial.
In the tribunal, Emperor Hirohito and the government were judged guilty of allowing the institutionalization of sexual slavery. But just before it was aired, the 44-minute program was shortened to 40 minutes after NHK cut crucial segments of the verdict that found the Emperor guilty and also deleted interview footage, including testimony by a Japanese veteran and a former comfort woman.
The suit also drew attention because the NGO claimed NHK cut the segments after being pressured by rightist groups and Liberal Democratic Party heavyweights, particularly former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Shoichi Nakagawa .
“It was an unfair and disappointing ruling,” Rumiko Nishino, a representative of VAWW-NET, told reporters in Tokyo. “I don’t take the ruling as a defeat . . . because this lawsuit revealed what happened” at NHK.
At issue was whether NHK and the two production companies were obliged to explain to VAWW-NET Japan about the changes they made before the program was broadcast.
In Thursday’s ruling, Justice Kazuko Yokoo, the presiding judge, said legally protecting the trust and expectations of people who become the subjects of broadcast productions will lead to the restriction of press freedoms.
The court also said the trust and expectations of people covered by the media are legally protected when the media put “enormous burdens” on them to cooperate with the reportage.
The court said VAWW-NET Japan gave NHK and the two other parties preferential treatment in producing the TV program, including allowing the NHK side to shoot meetings by the organizers and a rehearsal of the mock trial, but these activities do not constitute enormous burdens on the NGO.
Yuka Midorikawa, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said people may become reluctant to cooperate with the media if their trust and expectations are not legally protected in a case like this.
According to a document drafted earlier by the Tokyo High Court, VAWW-NET cooperated because it expected the public to be shown an overall picture of the tribunal.
The final version of the program, however, failed to show the responsibility that the late Emperor, posthumously named Showa, and the government bore for the sex slave policy, and the NGO claimed cutting this crucial part out of the mock trial constituted breach of trust.
NHK and the two production companies argued they did not have to give prior explanation to the group when they altered the program because they have the freedom to edit their own programs.
NHK also claimed it did not come under political pressure to alter the program, although the Tokyo High Court previously acknowledged it changed the content of the program after taking politicians’ remarks into account.
The daily Asahi Shimbun reported in January 2005 that Abe and Nakagawa put pressure on NHK before it aired the TV program.
The Supreme Court acknowledged NHK executives met with Abe one day before the program was broadcast and that rightists demanded that NHK not air the show. The high court said there was no evidence Nakagawa met NHK officials before the airing.
In 2004, the Tokyo District Court ordered Documentary Japan to pay ¥1 million in damages to VAWW-NET Japan, claiming it “gave wrong expectations about the program to the NGO, when the subcontractor had no authority to determine its content.” But the lower court did not find NHK or NHK Enterprises 21 guilty on the grounds that, as broadcasters, they were free to revise their programs.
In January 2007, the Tokyo High Court ordered NHK and the two production firms to pay a combined ¥2 million because they failed to give VAWW-NET Japan prior explanation about the alterations.
Although broadcasters have the right to edit their programs, the plaintiffs had firm grounds for believing the program would be in line with the organizers’ intention to hold the mock trial, the court said.
The high court also acknowledged NHK changed the content of the program after taking into account the remarks of politicians.