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Skepticism engulfs secrecy bill

by Ayako Mie

Staff Writer

As Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government rammed the controversial state secrecy bill through the Lower House last week, what seemed to become evident is that even his Cabinet ministers lack a coherent understanding of the content, breeding even more skepticism among the public.

Abe said he will ensure a thorough deliberation at the House of Councilors to ease public concerns, but with the extraordinary Diet session set to end Friday, it is unclear how much time the chamber will have to scrutinize the legislation.

Throughout the deliberations to date, Abe and his Liberal Democratic Party-led administration have failed to provide clear answers on critical issues centering on the range of state secrets, how the government will guarantee the public’s right to know and freedom of the press, and how the designation process will be monitored and by whom.

In the latest example of inconsistency, Masako Mori, state minister in charge of the secrecy bill, made a clumsy remark about press freedom.

During deliberation at an Upper House committee Friday, Mori withdrew remarks she made the previous day that it was important to set rules to limit contact between public servants and journalists. Instead, she acknowledged Friday it will be difficult to set such regulations.

Questions are repeatedly being asked about the scope of information the government will be able to classify as state secrets under four designated categories if the bill is enacted: diplomacy, defense, counterintelligence and counterterrorism.

Especially unclear is how the state will treat information related to nuclear power plants, an area where the government already lacks transparency, as demonstrated by the mishandling of the SPEEDI radiation detection system after the 2011 meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 plant.

On this issue, Mori repeatedly said information on atomic power stations will not be designated as a state secret except for security measures around them, as such facilities could be targeted by terrorists.

But based on that logic, any information the government considers terrorism-related could be classified as a state secret. Mori, who is also state minister for consumer affairs and food safety, fueled concerns by saying that some information about food safety might fall under the law’s scope because terrorists could target such produce.

She further said information on the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact does not fall under any of the four categories but then did an about-face, arguing trade issues that concern national security matters also can be classified, including information on the TPP.

The government has repeatedly made excuses for these inconsistencies by saying state secrets will be designated on a case-by-case basis and will be the responsibility of a panel of experts, who will be handpicked by the government and tasked with compiling a set of relevant standards.

The bill is facing strong public opposition, especially as it will imprison public servants and private citizens for up to 10 years for leaking state secrets they come across during their work.

The legislation will also set a maximum prison term of five years for anyone who encourages those who handle state secrets to divulge them, a penalty that will also apply to reporters and activists.

Abe has tried to smooth things over by saying journalists will not be punished as long as they engage in normal reporting activities. Yet anybody who seeks and obtains state secrets by methods deemed illegal or that infringe human rights will not have immunity under freedom of the press, as defined in a 1978 Supreme Court ruling pertaining to Mainichi Shimbun reporter Takichi Nishiyama.

The government’s inconsistency is underscored by the issue of whether a media organization could become the target of a police investigation if a public servant leaks information to a reporter. While Mori said media firms will not be subject to such probes, Justice Minister Sadakazu Tanigaki basically reversed her statement and said it will depend on each individual case.

The interpretation of the LDP and its ruling coalition partner, New Komeito, also seems to differ on amendments they agreed with the opposition’s Your Party and Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Restoration Party), most notably on the creation of an independent entity to monitor the classification process.

The revised bill stipulates in a provisional clause that the government will set up an independent body to oversee the process, but fails to mandate it.

On Thursday, Gen Nakatani of the LDP watered down the nature of the envisioned entity by saying the mechanism will be launched within the Cabinet Office to keep the prime minister in the loop. But Fumiki Sakurauchi, deputy chief of Nippon Ishin’s policy research unit, said the oversight body should be fully independent from the prime minister.

Amid mounting criticism of the government’s shaky explanations of the state secrecy bill so far, Abe said he hopes deliberation in the Upper House will ease public concern. Yet it is unclear if the chamber has enough time to adequately scrutinize the bill during the current extraordinary session, which ends Friday.

Upper House lawmakers commonly deliberate for only 70 percent of the time it takes members of the more powerful House of Representatives, where the bill was passed after 46 hours of debate.

Some ruling party legislators have said it will even be difficult to secure 30 hours in the upper chamber since Abe’s administration appears adamant about passing the bill by Friday to avoid having to extend the session, even at the cost of killing other government-sponsored bills.

The ruling camp’s high-handedness has somewhat united the opposition bloc, which, amid mounting criticism that it has failed to represent the public’s fears about the bill, had been in disarray over how to restrain the ruling coalition.

Yet other than fighting over the deliberation schedule the opposition lacks strategies to counter Abe, who remains firm that no further amendments to the bill will be permitted.