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TPP offers early test of how far secrets law will cow Japan’s media

by Philip Brasor

The central conflict over the recently passed state secrets bill was between the ruling coalition and its political opposition, but the real loser in the contest was the media, and not just because the new law would appear to limit its ability to gather news. The government always seemed to be one step ahead of the press in keeping its version of events prominent.

After the bill was passed, Tokyo Shimbun surveyed some experts for their take on the process. Several said the government purposely kept the details of the bill under wraps until it was submitted to the Cabinet for approval. As a result, the media was unprepared to cover it thoroughly when it quickly reached the debate phase.

Professor Hiroaki Mizushima of Hosei University said news programs were completely at a loss. Only TV Asahi and TBS tried to make sense of the bill for viewers. In his opinion, NHK failed by essentially “dumping” whatever the administration said about the bill into its reports, thus conveying the impression that is was “safe.”

More importantly, the government convinced the majority of Japanese citizens that the bill had nothing to do with them, a point Prime Minister Shinzo Abe drove home during his perfunctory press conference following the bill’s passage, when he said that the law would have no effect on average people’s lives; and that makes sense if you believe, as many do, that the Japanese media is so ineffective in getting its point across that it has no real influence when it comes to politics.

If this is true, then the only people who care about the new law are members of the media and the bureaucracy, since those are the only two institutions, outside of the elected government itself, that have stakes in the divulgence of information. Notwithstanding the citizen demonstrations that materialized outside the Diet building while the bill was debated, the media really did lose to the government, since it did not make the public believe that the bill was a threat to its right to know.

But even if the media had succeeded in that mission, it’s not certain it would have made a difference. As Liberal Democratic Party Secretary-General Shigeru Ishiba implied in the infamous blog post where he equated anti-secrecy bill demonstrators with terrorists, the government was duly elected and thus represents the will of the people. And while there are good reasons to doubt this assertion — the nagging question of vote disparities and the fact that, factoring in the low voter turnout in the last two national elections, the LDP can only claim support from about 20 percent of the electorate — it is the government the country relies on right now.

If the media wants to make the case that the bill is a threat to the public interest, it has to relate it to something the public cares about. Then and only then can parties opposed to the law tap public sentiment to get it changed, presumably by voting the law’s supporters out of office someday.

That’s not likely to happen anytime soon, but clues to how the law will affect the status quo are available, just not in the security sector it supposedly covers. During the contentious talks that led to the 2007 free trade agreement between the U.S. and South Korea, the latter passed a law forbidding the release of information related to negotiations at the insistence of the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR). Consequently, several employees of a TV station that produced a news program critical of the FTA were jailed for divulging information about the talks, as was the government official who leaked that information. The USTR was reportedly afraid that public protests would work against it, and in fact violent demonstrations and even one public suicide took place in front of the venue where the talks were taking place. The South Korean government did as it was told.

According to an essay by Toshihiro Yamanaka in the Asahi Shimbun on Nov. 24, the current negotiations between Japan and the U.S. as part of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) talks is running a similar course. Yamanaka covered the Brunei round in August. Of the 112 registered journalists there, 105 were Japanese. He describes the USTR as being “irritable” in nature, and in Brunei the Americans were having all Japanese coverage translated immediately into English. They repeatedly accused their Japanese counterparts of failing to control the flow of information, such as proposed tariff elimination rates.

Yamanaka says the Japanese media should report such matters because the outcome of any successful TPP talks will have a profound effect on Japanese trade policy. One of the few American journalists covering the talks in Brunei told him that no one in the U.S., “not even people from farm states,” know what the TPP is, so major news outlets didn’t send anyone.

The USTR mostly resents Japanese bureaucrats, who are famous for their carelessness with data, and is afraid sensitive information will eventually reach people who do have a stake in such issues. Then you get a situation like the massive 1999 riots at the World Trade Organization Ministerial Conference in Seattle, which the USTR is loath to see repeated. Yamanaka characterizes the TPP talks as “the most secretive trade negotiations to take place since the end of the 19th century,” an observation supported by classified documents recently released by WikiLeaks showing how the U.S. is pressuring all countries involved in TPP to make sure details of the talks are kept from the public.

The fact that America is insisting on secrecy in any field is a “joke,” says Yamanaka, in light of Edward Snowden’s revelations that America spies on anyone and everyone, and it’s common knowledge that the LDP pushed the secrecy bill at the urging of the U.S. “I hope this essay, in fact, is translated into English,” he writes wryly, “and reaches the USTR delegates during negotiations.”

That’s the sort of attitude Japanese reporters need to adopt if they’re ever going to stand up to their own government.