Ruling camp fends off rewrite of secrets bill

by Ayako Mie

Staff Writer

The ruling bloc effectively kept its contentious state secrets bill intact, and not subject to independent oversight, though it gave the appearance late Wednesday of compromising with Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Restoration Party) to attach minor requirements on government bodies seeking to classify information.

The Liberal Democratic Party-New Komeito ruling bloc is hoping to get the bill through the Lower House as early as next week after striking a deal with two midsize parties to bypass the Democratic Party of Japan, the largest opposition force. The DPJ opted to submit five of its own bills on amending the secrecy legislation rather than bargain with the ruling camp.

Both the ruling camp and Osaka-based Nippon Ishin boasted that sizable concessions had been made, but the amendments do little to mitigate the potential dangers the bill poses to the public’s right know and freedom of the press because they do not mandate the creation of a viable, independent group that can legitimately check the classification process.

The main focus of the discussions, which began last week, was how to prevent the government from defining secrets at its own discretion.

According to the original bill, the government can classify as a secret any information related to defense, diplomacy, terrorism and intelligence. But there are no clear standards on the process, which gives it plenty of wiggle room to stretch its interpretation of those four categories.

According to Wednesday’s agreement, all state-designated secrets are to be disclosed to the public after 60 years — in principle. In truth, the government would still be able to keep them classified after that time if the information fits into seven special categories. These categories include cases that have the potential to harm current diplomatic negotiations, and cases in which providers of state secrets would be physically endangered by public disclosure.

Nippon Ishin originally demanded that all secrets and information be declassified after 30 years without exception and tried to limit the number of government bodies that can classify information to the Cabinet Office, Defense Ministry and Foreign Ministry.

In the end, it compromised by accepting the 60-year time limit in exchange for limits on the various pieces of information that would be eligible for immunity to disclosure.

It also accepted the ruling camp’s proposal to strip any government body of its right to classify information if it hasn’t bothered to designate any secrets within five years of the law taking effect.

Any state body so stripped could only regain its classification rights if a hand-picked government panel decides it has a legitimate reason for doing so.

But this rule might just prompt ministries and agencies to go on secrecy binges to avoid losing their classification rights from the beginning.

“The amendment achieved a passing score of 80 out of 100 points,” declared Takao Fujii, head of Nippon Ishin’s Diet affairs committee, after Wednesday’s bargaining session concluded. Nippon Ishin originally said it wouldn’t vote for the bill unless the ruling camp accepted all five of its demands.

But Nippon Ishin Secetary-General Yorihisa Matsuno said Thursday that it will be difficult to pass the bill Monday at the Special Committee on National Security, where the bill is being deliberated, unless the details on how to go about designating state secrets and the role to be played by the monitoring group are fully discussed there. Nippon Ishin, Your Party and the DPJ are calling for a Diet hearing to be held before the vote.

The LDP and New Komeito have been ironing out the amendments since last week because they need support from as many opposition parties as possible to dodge mounting criticism that the purpose of the bill is to give the already disclosure-shy government unchecked power to hide inconvenient facts and infringe on the public’s right to know.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe believes the secrecy bill, which would subject public servants who leak information and reporters who try to acquire information in “illegal ways” to as much as 10 years in prison, is crucial for setting up the Japanese version of the U.S. National Security Council. The security council bill is being deliberated in the Upper House; the ruling bloc hopes to pass both bills before the extraordinary Diet session closes on Dec. 6.

Despite the proposed amendments, the bills are still riddled with critical loopholes, most notably the absence of a clause to mandate the formation of a legitimate oversight entity that can monitor or check the government’s classification efforts. The U.S., which Japan is purportedly trying to emulate, has just such a system in place to protect sensitive information.

The only solution that the ruling camp and Nippon Ishin agreed on was a “provisional clause” stating that the government would “consider” launching an oversight mechanism. But it even the supposedly independent panel proposed by Nippon Ishin would lack teeth because it is likely to be set up in the Cabinet Office. The government struck a similarly weak agreement with Your Party earlier this week that would put the prime minister himself in charge of monitoring the classification process and oblige him report on it to a panel of experts each year.

But letting the prime minister ultimately call the shots on hiding the “secrets” of the very government he heads may set Japan up for a Watergate-style scandal.