Secrecy law stirs fear of limits on freedoms

by Mari Yamaguchi

AP

Japan’s more powerful Lower House of approved a state secrecy bill late Tuesday that imposes stiffer penalties on bureaucrats who leak secrets and journalists who seek them, despite criticism the government is making a heavy-handed effort to hide what it’s doing and suppress press freedom.

The public is concerned because the government won’t say exactly what becomes secret. Critics say the law could allow the government to withhold more information and ultimately undermine Japan’s democracy.

The bill was approved after hours of delay due to protests by opposition lawmakers. The ruling bloc and its supporters hope the weaker Upper House will pass the legislation early this month.

The ruling party says the law is needed to encourage the U.S. and other allies to share national security information with Japan. With the creation of a U.S.-style National Security Council in his office, it is part of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s efforts to strengthen Japan’s role in global security and create a more authoritarian government at home. “This law is designed to protect the safety of the people,” Abe said, promising to relieve citizens’ concerns through further parliamentary debate.

The bill allows heads of ministries and agencies to classify 23 vaguely worded types of information related to defense, diplomacy, counterintelligence and counterterrorism, almost indefinitely.

Critics say it might sway authorities to withhold more information about nuclear power plants, arguing they could become terrorist targets. Or they warn that officials may refuse to disclose key elements of free trade talks to protect concessions that would make Tokyo or a partner look bad.

The move is welcomed by the United States, which wants a stronger Japan to counter China’s military rise, but raises fears in Japan that the country could be edging back toward its militaristic past, when authorities severely restrained free speech.

Some experts say the legislation would ease the way for Abe’s drive to revise Japan’s U.S.-drafted pacifist Constitution to give more power to the government and stress civil duties over basic human rights. “My biggest concern is that it would be more difficult for the people to see the government’s decision-making process,” said Kyouji Yanagisawa, a former top defense official who was in charge of national security in the Prime Minister’s Office in 2004-09. “That means we can’t check how or where the government made mistakes, or help the government make a wise decision.”

At a public hearing in Fukushima on Monday, the only one held before the vote, lawyer Hiroyasu Maki said the bill’s definition of secrets is so vague and broad that it could easily be expanded to include radiation data crucial to the evacuation and health of residents in case of another nuclear crisis. Opponents said that Tuesday’s vote despite unanimous opposition by the seven local officials invited to the hearing already shows the Abe government’s high-handed approach.

Ruling Liberal Democratic Party lawmakers say Washington has repeatedly said it feels insecure about sharing top-secret information with Japan due to its lack of legal protection for secrets. The U.S. is worried about leaks to China, they say.

Under the bill, leakers in the government face prison terms of up to 10 years, up from one year now. Journalists who obtain information “inappropriately” or “wrongfully” can get up to five years in prison, prompting criticism that it would make officials more secretive and intimidate the media. Attempted leaks or inappropriate reporting, complicity or solicitation are also considered illegal.

“This is a severe threat to freedom to report in Japan,” said Lawrence Repeta, a law professor at Meiji University in Tokyo. “It appears the Abe administration has decided that they can get a lot of what they want, which is to escape oversight, to decrease transparency in the government by passing a law that grants the government and officials broad authority to designate information as secret.”