Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Cabinet is set to approve a controversial bill Friday to protect state secrets that stops short of fully guaranteeing the public’s right to know and freedom of the press.
Critics fear the bill, which would next go to the Diet, gives the government too much power to control access to information.
The bill imposes heavier punishments on leakers of classified information in an attempt to tighten security and thereby satisfy the U.S. and its allies concerned about what they see as destabilizing factors in Asia.
“It is inevitable to protect state secrets when Japan exchanges information or policy-related notes with intelligence agencies in other countries,” Abe said Monday at a Diet session.
The tighter restrictions are “absolutely necessary,” according to Abe, for a Japanese version of the U.S. National Security Council — which the Diet is slated to begin deliberating on Friday — to function properly.
Compared with the U.S. and many other countries, Japan’s punitive measures against public servants who leak classified information are relatively lenient. While public servants in the U.S. face up to 10 years in prison for leaking defense-related information, their Japanese counterparts can spend only half that time behind bars at most. Anything not related to national security is good for only up to a year in prison.
The new bill reclassifies defense, diplomacy, counterintelligence and counterterrorism information as “state secrets,” and raises the penalty for leaking them to up to 10 years in prison.
With a comfortable majority in both chambers of the Diet, the Liberal Democratic Party-New Komeito ruling bloc had little trouble overcoming opposition to the drafting of the bill.
The LDP put the greatest effort into mollifying junior coalition partner New Komeito, which called for the inclusion of clauses specifying protections of the right to know and freedom of the press.
As it stands now, the bill reads that freedom of the press should be taken into full consideration to guarantee the public’s right to know. Reporting, it says, is legitimate if its purpose is to serve the public good and the information is not obtained in unlawful or extremely unjust ways.
“Our demand was fully reflected in the bill,” New Komeito leader Natsuo Yamaguchi said when the party approved the final version Tuesday.
The reporting clause is based on a 1978 Supreme Court ruling upholding lower court convictions of a former Mainichi Shimbun reporter who obtained state secrets.
The reporter, Takichi Nishiyama, was found guilty of “unjustly” obtaining information because he used his affair with a married Foreign Ministry clerk to learn that Japan had agreed to secretly pay a substantial amount of the cost of Okinawa’s reversion from U.S. to Japanese rule in 1972.
In fact, the government has no clear criteria for defining “extremely unjust ways” of obtaining information. Nor does the clause clearly state that journalists will not be punished if their reporting is deemed legitimate — a demand dropped by New Komeito.
There are other loopholes. For example, it’s unclear whether “the press” includes freelance journalists or publications owned by political parties.
Explaining the omission last week, Nobutaka Machimura, head of the LDP team that worked on the bill, said: “It is possible for terrorists to launch a magazine and advocate for freedom of the press. There are some sketchy journalists, too.”
Meanwhile, many media outlets and rights experts have voiced concern that a state secret could remain classified indefinitely under the bill. Although the bill puts an initial five-year limit on keeping state secrets, the classification can be extended indefinitely. Cabinet approval is required for secrets to stay classified over 30 years, but there are no guidelines beyond that.
“Information disclosure is important and we need to have them declassified if necessary. But I cannot say that we will not have any information that cannot be declassified after more than 30 years or 50 years,” LDP Secretary-General Shigeru Ishiba told a Sunday television program.
There is also no independent body to oversee the legitimacy of the classification. Initial assurances by the ruling bloc of an independent third-party panel have not been reflected in the bill.