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Press club system a domestic dilemma begging for change

by Jochen Legewie

In January, the European Business Council in Japan will launch a new magazine called eurobiz japan. This magazine will address topics of special interest to European firms here, including the press club system — an issue that continues to rankle foreign business circles.

The press club system has long been criticized by “Reporters Without Borders” and other organizations. As recently as 2006, the Paris-based group had Japan ranked as low as No. 51 worldwide in terms of press freedom.

While praised as an efficient tool for quickly and effectively distributing information, press clubs in actuality restrict access to press conferences and information given out by various institutions — including government ministries, the police, the Diet and other public organizations — to their members.

These members are usually the major newspapers, the two wire services and the major TV stations. Most other media outlets — including magazines, freelance reporters and most foreign media organizations — have traditionally been barred, preserving an access gap between “inside” and “outside” media.

Hence there were big hopes for change when the new DPJ-led government took over in September. The DPJ campaigned repeatedly on a promise to increase transparency and to give all media direct access to government and other information sources in Japan.

So far, the DPJ has succeeded in making significant changes over the past few months. Let’s take a closer look.

Since the DPJ was already opening its press conferences to all media back in 2002, it was no surprise when Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s first press conference was prefaced by the unusual step of inviting outside media, such as magazines and Internet-based reporters. Since then, press conferences at the Prime Minister’s Official Residence have been open to selected magazines, but not to all media yet.

Hatoyama has also attempted to ban the practice of bureaucrats speaking directly to the press, a step he partially retracted later.

However, in a split with traditional media practice, Hatoyama’s Cabinet ministers have been speaking to the press without referring to notes prepared by their ministries, another sign the government is taking power away from the bureaucracy and putting it back in the hands of elected policymakers.

And the Foreign Ministry, now under the leadership of Katsuya Okada, abolished restrictions on media participation in press conferences from day one, leading the drive to break the power of the press club system.

The Financial Services Agency attempted to do the same but was forced to compromise due to opposition from its very own press club.

As an interim step, Financial Services Minister Shizuka Kamei decided to halve the duration of press club conferences and offer a second one for nonmembers instead. The reality, however, is that this second press conference is sometimes canceled.

Foreign firms are wondering which way the press clubs — especially those at the Tokyo Stock Exchange and the ministries overseeing their corresponding industries — will go.

One special case will be the newly established Consumer Affairs Agency. Many foreign firms fear this new entity and its press club could pose a threat should they ever get entangled in major recall or other scandal.

On Nov. 11, Maclaren, a British maker of baby strollers, learned this the hard way. It had recalled some of its strollers in the United States but not in Japan. This prompted Mizuho Fukushima, minister in charge of consumer affairs, to make a public call to refrain from using these strollers altogether.

This call was delivered with the full punch of a press club that was briefed on the topic exclusively by the agency but without any input from the company.

Be it politics or business, Japan’s press clubs will be around for some time. The power struggle between the new government and the press club media, which will insist on retaining their coveted information privileges, continues and is likely to do so in the near future.

This means the tussle is more of a domestic issue than a beef about foreign information access. Accredited foreign journalists have been enjoying press club privileges ever since the Delegation of the European Commission to Japan decided to push for those rights.

However, if Japanese free-lancers and reporters from domestic magazines and Internet-based media stay out of the press clubs, there is little hope of fundamental change taking place in the present system.

Based on the DPJ’s attitudes and actions, it seems possible that more change is on the way rather than less. It is doubtful, however, that something as radical as the abolition of press clubs will take place, especially in the next four years.

But the gradual inclusion of more and more nontraditional journalists in state media events could one day mean the distinction between inside and outside media will be redundant not only in press clubs, but in the Japanese media industry overall.