Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party punished four of its junior Diet members Saturday for blaming the media for the weak public support dogging the national security bills and threatening to punish news outlets who provide critical reporting on the issue.
The remarks “have largely undermined citizens’ confidence in our party, and we have decided that the issue should not be overlooked,” Liberal Democratic Party Secretary-General Sadakazu Tanigaki said at a news conference at LDP headquarters in Tokyo.
Minoru Kihara, the 45-year-old member who organized the meeting where the views were aired, was sacked as head of the LDP’s Youth Division and will be suspended from holding any other post for a year. The other three members — Takahiro Inoue, Hideo Onishi and Takashi Nagao — also from the Lower House, are to be reprimanded for their remarks, Tanigaki said. The group led by Kihara comprises members loyal to Abe.
The LDP is apparently hoping the steps will quickly put the matter to rest so it can succeed in passing the contentious security bills during the extended Diet session, which is now due to close in late September.
But the opposition parties are calling for the prime minister to take the blame for the media-bashing session himself.
Speaking in Nagoya, opposition leader Katsuya Okada rapped Abe for not apologizing for the matter.
“The prime minister treats the issue as if it’s someone else’s problem,” and merely stripping Kihara of his post will not solve it.
The fact that the anti-media remarks came from LDP loyalists close to Abe, and the growing backlash against them, have dealt a fresh blow to the Abe administration as lawmakers debate bills that would let Japan to engage in collective self-defense — or coming to the defense of allies under armed attack even when Japan itself is not under attack.
Many constitutional scholars, former government officials and lawmakers have recently spoken against the bills, calling them unconstitutional in light of Abe’s controversial reinterpretation last year of war-renouncing Article 9, which bans the use of force to solve international disputes and remains unamended.
The media attacks began Thursday during a meeting of a study group of junior LDP lawmakers close to Abe and headed by Kihara, now in his third term in the House of Representatives. The participants unleashed a barrage of anti-media criticism and called for pressuring news outlets to silence them. Onishi, 68, proposed targeting their advertising revenues, according to some who were there.
Their featured speaker, novelist and former NHK board member Naoki Hyakuta, set the tone for the meeting and said The Okinawa Times and The Ryukyu Shimpo — two major newspapers in Okinawa critical of the central government’s policy on U.S. military bases and other issues — should be destroyed, they said.
Abe was reluctant to reprimand anyone over the meeting, noting that it was a “private study group” and saying it would be problematic to punish someone over remarks made in such a setting.
But after the remarks drew a hail of protest from the media and the opposition camp, senior LDP officials rushed to contain the fallout, a senior party official said. They included Tanigaki, Vice President Masahiko Komura and Tsutomu Sato, head of the party’s Diet Affairs Committee.
Kihara “cannot escape being held responsible for damaging the public’s confidence in our party by holding a careless meeting right after we extended a Diet session far beyond its original schedule,” the official said.
Kihara is responsible for “giving the wrong impression that the party is eager to control the media,” said another LDP executive, who declined to be identified.
In the meantime, five opposition lawmakers representing constituencies in Okinawa released a statement Saturday protesting the novelist’s call for “destroying” the two newspapers, saying his remarks infringe on the freedom of expression and the press guaranteed under the Constitution.
They said the papers are critical of the government’s plan to build a U.S. replacement base on the island because the papers speak for the people of Okinawa.
Calling his remarks “abusive,” the lawmakers demanded that Hyakuta retract them and apologize.
In Ginowan, which hosts U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, Mayor Atsushi Sakima expressed displeasure with Hyakuta’s remarks. The base is at the center of a fierce dispute between Okinawa Prefecture and the central government.
Despite opposition from Okinawa, the central government is proceeding with a plan to move the base, currently in the city of Ginowan, further north to the Henoko coastal area in Nago.
Hyakuta asserted at the meeting that the base was originally in the middle of rice paddies and that people had moved closer to the base as they looked for lucrative business opportunities.
Sakima told reporters, “There should be no remarks that hit a raw nerve with residents.”
The base property was requisitioned by the U.S. military during the war, and there are landowners in the area, the mayor said. “I want Hyakuta to learn.”
Sakima also urged the LDP to fully understand the situation in Okinawa.
The two Okinawa newspapers issued a joint statement Friday protesting Hyakuta’s remarks.
The statement, issued by their chief editors, said that the shortsighted mindset calling for closing them down because they are critical of the government is “extremely dangerous.”
Hyakuta’s remark is an “exact example of suppression of free speech because it’s based on the idea that any report that doesn’t go along with intentions of the administration shouldn’t be tolerated,” it said.
“It is an absurd argument that denies freedom of expression and freedom of the press, which are essential to democracy,” it said.