Government, media equally to blame in debate on free speech, say journalists


Staff Writer

Veteran Japanese journalists have stepped up their criticism of communications minister Sanae Takaichi over her comments that the government can suspend broadcasters’ operations if they air what it considers politically-biased programs.

However, during a news conference Thursday at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan in Tokyo, the journalists also admitted the media was equally to blame for such a situation by self-censoring in fear of burning bridges with government sources.

They said Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wanted to pressure the media not to run negative stories on controversial issues such as the new security laws that will take effect Tuesday.

“Media is supposed to keep tabs on the government. But now the government is monitoring the news organizations,” said Shuntaro Torigoe, a veteran journalist and former editor-in-chief of the Sunday Mainichi magazine.

Takaichi’s comments last month on the Broadcast Law sparked an outcry from journalists who said the remarks reflected a repression of free speech, which is guaranteed by the Constitution.

Heightening concerns of government interference, they also came just before the departure or announced departures of several news anchors critical of Abe. This led to speculation that the TV stations had caved in to political pressure.

Hiroko Kuniya ended her 23-year career at NHK’s Close Up Gendai earlier this month. TV Asahi’s Ichiro Furutachi and Shigetada Kishii at TBS are also leaving their programs at the end of this month.

“Government pressure on the media is very crafty and subtle. They do not do it in a blatant way,” said Kishii, whose last day at TBS’s News 23 is on Friday. Kishii repeated his position that there was no direct or indirect pressure from the government.

While journalists criticized the government, they also admitted that the media was equally culpable.

“I believe that the essence of this suffocation is not so much a result of the heavy-handed attitude of the political powers, but rather as a result of the media itself anticipating the intentions of the political powers, strengthening self-regulation and self-censorship, and conducting itself in an unnecessary way,” TBS veteran reporter Shigeonori Kahenira said in a statement. He was absent as he was reporting in Brussels on this week’s deadly terrorist attacks.

Japanese media are often criticized for relatively tolerant attitudes to the government of the day, and are known to have overly cozy relationships with politicians and bureaucrats.

The heads of news organizations often have dinner with Abe, while major news organizations belong to so-called kisha press clubs within government buildings, where they are handed out press releases and often have off-the-record chats with government officials. The Japan Times is also a member of various kisha clubs.

Kishii said that the government consistently made clear its satisfaction with media coverage to beat reporters, who then relayed the information to superiors. They, in turn, were afraid of angering the government.

However, he said that when asked if they should change the system, journalists were hesitant as they needed to act almost like an insider to obtain critical information.

“We can only get government secrets through whistle-blowers” said Kishii, who used to be a political reporter at the Mainichi Shimbun. “It’s hard to draw the line as we have to build a very close relationship with our sources.”