Facing criticism that a proposed bill aimed at protecting state secrets that the government deems vital to national security would strongly limit people’s access to relevant information, the Abe administration now says it will insert a phrase in the bill emphasizing the inviolable principles of freedom of the press and people’s right to know.
Such a phrase will be a mere declaration that will not have any effective power to guarantee those rights. Given the government’s explanation so far, the bill is clearly antidemocratic in nature. The Abe administration should not submit the bill to the Diet.
It is deplorable that the Abe administration appears to be making light of people’s right to know. Despite the danger that the bill would undermine people’s right to know what their government is doing — indispensable for ensuring a healthy development of democracy — the administration collected public comments on the bill for only 15 days from Sept. 3 to 17. That’s less time, for example, than the 42 days (from July 2 to Aug. 12, 2012) that the Democratic Party of Japan government took to find out people’s views on the appropriate share of nuclear power in the nation’s electricity supply in 2030.
The bill will allow the heads of administrative bodies to designate as special secrets an extremely wide range of information in the areas of defense, diplomacy, counterintelligence and prevention of terrorism if they think the information merits special protection.
The biggest flaw of the bill is that officials would have discretionary power over what information they designate as special secrets. In addition, the bill has no internal mechanism, such as a closed committee of experts, to verify whether the designation of special secrets is justifiable. Thus the inherent nature of the bill is that the heads of administrative bodies can expand the scope of special secrets ad infinitum.
The defense minister would be able to designate almost all information related to defense and the Self-Defense Forces if he wishes so, including plans, estimates and studies related to operations of the SDF and improvement of the nation’s defense capabilities; types and quantities of weapons and ammunition; capabilities and ways of production and uses of weapons and ammunition in the development stage; and designs and capabilities of defense-related facilities.
The foreign minister would be able to designate as special secrets information concerning “negotiations” and the scope of cooperation with foreign governments or international organizations in the field of security.
The concept is so wide and vague that the government would be able to conduct security negotiations with foreign countries in complete secrecy. Information related to guarding nuclear power plants to prevent terrorist attacks could also be classified as special secrets.
Once information held by the government is designated as a special secret, it could remain in that status semi-permanently through renewal of the status every five years.
The bill provides for punishing reporters who try to investigate special secrets. This is extremely worrisome. It is unclear whether reporters who press national servants to discuss special secrets would be regarded as “instigating” them to talk.
The government says that as long as reporters do their reporting activities in a normal manner, they will not be punished. But because the bill will subject national servants who leak special secrets to up to 10 years’ imprisonment, they’ll be unlikely to talk about delicate information with reporters in the first place.
Diet members who leak special secrets could be imprisoned for up to five years. This threat would almost suffocate the Diet’s function. Lawmakers and civic groups must publicize the danger posed by the bill and let people become aware of the danger so that the bill will not be submitted to the Diet.