Press club faithful fight change

Mainstream media close ranks as DPJ tries to open up briefings

by Jun Hongo

Since its landmark victory in the Aug. 30 general election, the Democratic Party of Japan has continued efforts to shake up the power structure to make good on its promise to create an accountable administration.

But its latest steps to cancel routine news conferences by bureaucrats and open up the closed press club system have met resistance from major media outlets, with some questioning whether the change will actually reform the bureaucracy.

Right after returning from the U.N. General Assembly last month, Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada on Sept. 29 announced that some magazine and online news reporters will be allowed to attend his regular news conferences at the ministry.

“If the old system persists, it could take away opportunities for other journalists” to do their job, Okada said in explaining the change. “This is a matter of the public’s right to know. I hope you understand my judgment.”

The DPJ had proposed opening up news conferences by Cabinet members to all media outlets.

Routine briefings up to now have been open only to “kisha” (press) club members — who belong to major domestic news organizations, including national daily newspapers, TV stations and wire services.

This arrangement effectively barred freelance journalists, foreign media organizations, magazine reporters and online news site journalists from attending news conferences held at ministries.

Okada’s Sept. 29 announcement took the reporters in the Foreign Ministry kisha club by surprise.

With the launch of the new government, members had started discussing opening up regular news conferences but had yet to reach a consensus.

The club had been telling the ministry not all members could agree with Okada’s position but those opposed would try to avoid direct confrontation with him.

Okada’s unilateral decision induced changes at his news conferences, at least on the surface.

On Sept. 29, the Foreign Ministry press club room saw reporters from smaller media outlets occupying seats, and some taking notes while standing.

“I thank you for opening the news conference to us,” a reporter from an online Web site told Okada during a Q&A session, a sentiment later repeated by foreign reporters. Some even called on Okada to allow in a wider range of freelance and online reporters.

Taro Kamematsu, deputy chief editor of Internet news site J-Cast, welcomed Okada’s move to open up routine news conferences.

“There is a symbolic significance to this,” he told The Japan Times. J-Cast may not attend every news conference Okada holds because it lacks the manpower, but the implication of being allowed to attend the sessions is huge, Kamematsu added.

Although other ministries have yet to formally open up their news conferences to nonmainstream media outlets, Okada said the movement may spread beyond his ministry. He had opened up his news conferences to all media since serving as DPJ secretary general and is determined to continue this practice as foreign minister.

“If this works, the trend could spread wider,” he said.

But exclusivity will probably remain the norm for briefings held by Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama at the Prime Minister’s Official Residence.

Freelance journalists have been barred from the facility for security reasons, and those who get in have been traditionally given “observer” status without the right to pose questions.

A larger obstacle for the DPJ is the strong resistance from the kisha clubs themselves and the bureaucrats.

The press clubs have tried to maintain their limits on membership, effectively ensuring their exclusive access to information. Only after mounting, and widely reported, criticism did they open their doors to major foreign media organizations, including Reuters and Bloomberg. But emerging media such as online news organizations have yet to gain a beachhead.

Kisha clubs are composed of members of the Japan Newspaper Publishers and Editors Association or a similar body, and a company must be recommended by at least two press club members to obtain new membership in most cases.

“Japan’s media industry has a history of applying pressure to public institutions reluctant to disclose information by banding together in the form of the kisha club,” the Japan Newspaper Publishers and Editors Association states on its Web site.

The association, which stands behind the arrangement, said the framework was formed over the course of a century and continues to serve the public’s right to know.

The DPJ also faces opposition from bureaucrats, who have used the kisha clubs to channel the information they wanted the major news groups to publicize. This system also ensures the media are spoon-fed by the ministries, encouraging reporters to create nonadversarial relationships with government officials to avoid losing their privileged access to information.

Another motion put forward by the DPJ — abolishing all routine news conferences by top ministry officials — has also met with opposition.

The Cabinet quickly reached an agreement last month to bar top bureaucrats from making public statements, hoping to underscore their goal of putting politicians in charge of the government.

Kisha clubs opposed this ban, arguing it will reduce the public’s access to information.

The Foreign Ministry agreed with Okada to hold up to four news conferences a week, or twice as much as his Liberal Democratic Party predecessor, Hirofumi Nakasone, had done. Many say this will be a challenge for Okada, since the planned political appointees at each ministry will take over the bureaucrats’ role of briefing reporters on details of government policies and making official announcements.

Bureaucrats are maintaining a business-as-usual posture despite the DPJ initiatives, but they are uncertain whether the shift will affect their jobs.

On opening up the foreign minister’s news conferences, many said the hoopla will wane and small media outlets will probably not continue to attend.

The news conferences were open to most journalists as observers to begin with, many Foreign Ministry officials said, but reporters outside the press club system seldom attended in the past.

Senior officials also say ending the routine news conferences held by top bureaucrats will have no major impact on the parties involved because reporters will have enough access to bureaucrats.

For example, Okada compromised on allowing routine off-the-record briefings held between bureaucrats and kisha club members to continue.

“It would be welcome if routine gatherings between bureaucrats and the media are also open to us,” J-Cast’s Kamematsu said, although he admitted it will take a greater effort by smaller media groups to participate.

On the chances of other ministries following Okada’s initiative to open up news conferences, Kamematsu said there is not much that freelance journalists or online reporters can do at present.

“As of now, it’s up to the ministries and the press clubs to allow us in or not,” he said, acknowledging their pens are not mightier than the vested interests of bureaucrats and the larger media.