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The candy, the whip and freedom of press in Japan

by

Special To The Japan Times

We are familiar with the carrot-and-stick approach in the West, but the phrase in Japan is “ame to muchi” — literally, the candy and the whip.

For journalists in Japan, there’s been a lot of whip in recent times and not much candy. How can we sweeten the deal?

Since the ruling coalition came to power, press freedom in the country is the only thing that has sunk faster than the value of the yen. Reporters Without Borders this year ranked Japan at a new low, dropping two places to 61 out of 180 countries and territories, just one below Korea and several notches below Croatia. It had ranked as high as 22 in 2012.

Reporters Without Borders didn’t shy away from the reasons behind Japan’s drop.

“The (state secrets law) the National Diet in Japan adopted in late 2013 … (reduces) government transparency on such key national issues as nuclear power and relations with the United States, now enshrined as taboos. Investigative journalism, public interest and the confidentiality of journalists’ sources are all being sacrificed by legislators bent on ensuring that their country’s image is spared embarrassing revelations.”

The domestic press hasn’t been controlled by the state to this extent since, arguably, 1937. It helps, or course, that the Islamic State group has recently carried out acts of terrorism on citizens of Japan. We live in a time when you can be labeled a “supporter of terrorism” for asking if Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s speech in Cairo on Jan. 11 — in which he pledged $200 million for “those countries contending with ISIL (another name used to describe the Islamic State group)” — may have prompted militants to target Japan. National Police Agency sources say Islamic State militants seemed to regard Japan as neutral in the conflict until Abe delivered his speech. Well, not anymore.

After the crisis died down, of course, news outlets and the opposition asked a few timid questions on the wisdom of that speech and why the government didn’t seem particularly interested in saving the Japanese hostages in Syria. Nikkan Gendai noted that Abe’s response after being informed of journalist Kenji Goto’s capture by Islamic State militants was a short vacation.

The government has said that it will conduct an internal review of their handling of the hostage crisis that will not be made public. On Feb. 10, Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida further kicked reporters in the teeth by saying at a news conference that all matters pertaining to the hostage crisis “could be a state secret.”

That’s a very subtle way of saying: “Keep asking questions and we can put you in jail.” A freelance journalist who attempted to go to Syria last month was even directly threatened with arrest. Not so subtle.

It appears the Abe administration has been focusing on the press and free speech from the very beginning, using intimidation, subversion — and some candy. The press is losing.

The Wall Street Journal and others noted last month that NHK chief Katsuto Momii said the state broadcaster would refrain from reporting on the issue of “comfort women” who were forced to provide sex for Japanese troops before and during World War II “until the government stance on the situation was clear.” One has to wonder what is unclear about the government’s stance.

Thus when the Asahi Shimbun — disliked by the Liberal Democratic Party and Abe — last year retracted a portion of its reporting on the comfort women issue in the 1980s and ’90s — right-wing groups seized the day and went on attack. The Asahi then also retracted important testimony on the disaster at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, perhaps out of fear.

Abe himself said the Asahi had brought shame upon Japan, practically declaring it an enemy of the state, and warned other newspapers to exercise care when reporting on the comfort women issue.

Still, when weekly magazine Shukan Bunshun revealed that Eriko Yamatani, chairwoman of the National Public Safety Commission that oversees the National Police Agency, was linked to a hate group known as Zaitokukai, she refused to renounce them.

“It’s inappropriate for government officials to criticize individual groups,” she said during a news conference at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan.

In other words, it’s alright to call the Asahi shameful because the government may disagree with its reporting but it’s not alright to call out racists. Similarly, Abe kept silent during the furor that arose last month after Ayako Sono — who was appointed by the prime minister to an education reform panel in 2013 — wrote a column in the Sankei Shimbun that advocated apartheid for Japan.

What can be done to encourage those who value free speech to keep on fighting for the good cause when those who speak out are attacked publicly?

The FCCJ has taken a small step forward by launching the first annual Freedom of the Press Awards, which will be announced on May 3 (World Press Freedom Day). There will be a specific award for investigative journalism, as well as an award for nonjournalists who have contributed to freedom of information. (Full disclosure: I’m ineligible to be nominated for any award because I’m on the organizing committee.)

The judging panel will include some heavyweight Japanese luminaries. The prizes will “confer due recognition upon journalists whose work represents the finest in defense of free speech, open society and democratic accountability.”

It will also offer an award for fallen heroes. The most likely candidate for the inaugural prize is Kenji Goto, the journalist who was beheaded by jihadis after Abe’s Cairo speech.

Ultimately, however, the awards should recognize those in the media doing their job — informing the public of things those in power do not want them to know. That, to me, definitely seems worth rewarding.

Dark Side of the Rising Sun is a monthly column that takes a behind-the-scenes look at news in Japan.

  • Nelson

    I wholeheartedly agree with the last two sentences. The job of the journalist is to report news by digging for it. Too many journalists in Japan are lazy and just parrot the “news” that’s given to them from government officials. That’s not journalism at all, that’s just repeating the “kanpo” (government news).

    For example one of the things journalists could do may be to grab some geiger counters and do some independent reporting of the radiation levels in various parts of the country and then publish the methods and results. That’s an independent source of information that people would be happy to hear considering the continued controversy over nuclear reactors.

    • Ken Yasumoto-Nicolson

      Google Safecast – they do independent radiation monitoring, as have Greenpeace, and they have found almost nothing untoward.

      • Nelson

        Ah, that’s the kind of news that needs reporting. As I said lazy journalists in Japan…

  • Jonathan Fields

    “Public interest […] is being sacrificed by legislators bent on ensuring that their country’s image is spared embarrassing revelations.”

    Yup. This could have been the whole article. Almost every problem with Korea and China also stems from the old fogies in power wanting to avoid any “haji” for their glorious Nippon. If that’s how they want to play it, fine, but the international community needs to treat this effort with exactly the respect it deserves: none.

  • http://www.turning-japanese.info/ Eido INOUE

    Some facts deliberately withheld or overlooked by this journalist:

    A freelance journalist who attempted to go to Syria last month was even directly threatened with arrest. Not so subtle.

    The so-called un-credentialed “freelance [photographic] journalist” (more like a blogger / wanna-be: all his articles were on his blog, which was full of wild conspiracy theories and crazy bombastic claims) chose to expose himself of intention to go to Syria to local paper to gain maximum public attention. This guy was more like Haruna Yukawa, not Kenji Goto. What MoFA did was not stop a journalist, but stop a guy looking for attention by publicly committing suicide. He would have ended up instantly in an orange jumpsuit on a ISIS video.There are multiple Japanese individuals who had been to Syria including Asahi correspondents, and none of them have been arrested.

    Abe kept silent during the furor that arose last month after Ayako Sono — who was appointed by the prime minister to an education reform panel in 2013 — wrote a column in the Sankei Shimbun that advocated apartheid for Japan.

    Adelstein intentionally cut out the fact that Sono had resigned from the panel on the same year and had no official connection with the Abe administration. Of course PM Abe stayed silent! No connection!

    The Asahi then also retracted important testimony on the disaster at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, perhaps out of fear.

    Asahi retracted false “testimony” by now deceased Fukushima plant chief’s that claimed some of the TEPCO employees in Fukushima site had left their post without orders. And it was revealed conclusively as incorrect. Is Adelstein claiming that newspapers shouldn’t retract stories that have been proved false?

  • David Christopher

    Jake. Here is.a few questions i have about japan:

    1. How can they produce a clear concise statement about their war time conduct favorable to themselves..without antagonizing the US and calling our version of recorded history a lie?

    2. If The US or ANY other nation suddenly sneak attacked Japan…How could they possibly condemn such an attack without also condemning themselves and their wartime forefathers?

    3. How did japan go from being cruel inhumane cannibals to polite friends instantly at their emperor’s request..would they also return to their wartime conduct instantly at the emperor’s request?

    • Sam Gilman

      Ooh, let’s play…

      How can America go from faking evidence to kill thousands of Iraqi children to…

      Oh, hold on, this is a stupid argument. And that’s about an event when both you and I were alive.

      OK, so maybe the problem is that it’s not a bad enough event. OK – how can Americans go from enslaving and brutalising millions of black people to a lovely multiracial society merely at the stroke of a President’s pen…

      Nah, still feels wrong. I mean, we’re talking about white people, not brutes…

      Ooh, what if this: it’s completely crazy, but what if there were states in 2015 where politicians were planning to order schools to stop teaching how bad slavery was because it undermines patriotism.

      Hmmm…that just would never happen like ever…

      OK, how about this. I’ll just go and check on my kids. No, my partner still hasn’t eaten them yet, and even though there’s a Japanese passport sitting in the desk drawer. Or maybe my kids will start cooking and eating each other, because that’s what Japanese just do. Or maybe it’s that wonderful bit of whiteness from me that stops them all from a bloodbath every day. Or maybe they’re going to cook and eat me? After all, those Japs are all cannibals, aren’t they?

      Gosh, David. What should I do? Build a panic room in my own house? But I’ll have to ask one of them to build it, and they’ll all tell each other the security code because of the hive mind and blood lust.

      Heeeeeeeeeeeellllllllllllllllp………….