The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan on Monday planned to lodge an official protest with the ruling Liberal Democratic Party over a bill to protect state secrets, by denouncing the legislation for being a direct threat to journalists.
FCCJ President Lucy Birmingham said in a statement released Monday on the group’s website that the club is “alarmed by the text of the bill, as well as associated statements made by some ruling party lawmakers, relating to the potential targeting of journalists for prosecution and imprisonment.”
The bill is aimed at tightening the government’s grip on national security-related information designated as state secrets by sentencing public servants to up to 10 years in prison for leaking the classified information. Reporters could also face similar charges for obtaining such information.
The FCCJ is especially concerned as the club and its members have played a key role in uncovering a number of government scandals, including the Lockheed bribery scandal of the 1970s and 1980s, which was harshly scrutinized for the first time at a club luncheon featuring then-Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka.
“Reporters will not know what kind of questions they should be asking if the bill is passed,” Birmingham said in a telephone interview with The Japan Times.
Birmingham added that passage of the bill would further contribute to the government’s eroding trustworthiness among the foreign press, especially after the government’s routine mismanagement of information on the Fukushima nuclear disaster.
In one case, The New York Times was the first news outlet to report on how the Democratic Party of Japan government led by Naoto Kan withheld radiation forecasts calculated by SPEEDI, a state-funded computer system designed to help residents of affected zones evacuate.
“The trust for the Japanese government is at an all time low,” Birmingham said. “Because of the Fukushima situation, trust will be tarnished.”
Although the government specified that information related to nuclear power will not be classified except for the security situation at atomic plants, many loopholes remain.
“Basically almost any government policy can be related to security or national defense,” said Michael Penn, the head of Shingetsu News Agency and chair of the FCCJ’s Freedom of the Press committee. “It will be interpreted only by the government. The vagueness will allow them to make decisions about secrets.”
The club is especially concerned about the bill’s vague language, which warns journalists that they must not use “inappropriate methods” in conducting investigations of government policy.
“Such vague language could be, in effect, a license for government officials to prosecute journalists almost as they please,” Birmingham said in the statement.
Masako Mori, the minister in charge of the legislation, said last month that the criteria for inappropriate methods is based on a 1978 Supreme Court ruling upholding lower court convictions of Takichi Nishiyama, a former Mainichi Shimbun reporter who obtained state secrets.
Nishiyama was found guilty of “unjustly” obtaining information because he used an affair with a married Foreign Ministry clerk to learn that Japan had secretly agreed to shoulder a substantial amount of the cost of Okinawa’s reversion from U.S. to Japanese rule.
The Diet’s role to check the government would also be severely weakened, as only a selected number of lawmakers, members of a so-called secret Diet session, can access the classified information if the government decides to reveal it.
But the lack of a clear set of standards defining inappropriate methods, let alone what constitutes state secrets, has sparked worry among critics who also note that with no classification or declassification system — or a means for the courts to check the process — the government could essentially be given unchecked power to control information at their discretion.