Integrity needed in journalism

The Nara District Court on April 15 gave a suspended sentence to a Kyoto psychiatrist for leaking investigation records as well as the content of a psychiatric test concerning a then 16-year-old boy to a freelance journalist. The boy, who was eventually sent to a reformatory, had torched his house in Tawaramoto, Nara Prefecture, in June 2006. His stepmother and two siblings died in the fire.

In a rare move, the prosecution charged Dr. Morimitsu Sakihama with divulging confidential information. The ruling, which deals with a Penal Code provision prohibiting lawyers, doctors and religious workers from leaking confidential information, is the first of its kind since 1978, when relevant data first became available.

Dr. Sakihama, who was approached by Ms. Atsuko Kusanagi, a freelance journalist, told the court that he wanted the public to know that the boy did not have murderous intent but was suffering from a pervasive developmental disorder that hampers communication and social skills. On Oct. 5, 2006, without Dr. Sakihama’s knowledge, Ms. Kusanagi and staff of Kodansha Ltd. took digital photos of the material he had shown. In May 2007, a book written by Ms. Kusanagi was published by Kodansha.

Since the book extensively used direct quotes from the investigation records and the psychiatric test, public prosecutors easily identified the source and Dr. Sakihama was indicted in November 2007. The book also disclosed personal information related to the boy and his father.

The ruling said that the leaking of information while family court proceedings on the boy were in process was malicious. It gave a suspended sentence because Dr. Sakihama did not permit the copying of the information and because he was not involved in the publication of the book.

Ms. Kusanagi and Kodansha Ktd., the former of which even told the court that Dr. Sakihama was her source, should seriously reflect upon on their conduct. They not only betrayed the trust of their source, but made identification of him easy, which led to the indictment.

The indictment and ruling could intimidate and discourage people who are considering leaking information in the name of conscience to the mass media, thus jeopardizing the freedom of expression and the people’s right to know.