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Abe promotes secrecy, sidelining transparency and open government

by Jeff Kingston

Special To The Japan Times

Norika Fujiwara, a TV celebrity who serves as goodwill ambassador for the Japanese Red Cross, recently caused a media sensation when she came out against the government’s proposed secrecy legislation, saying it would adversely affect citizens.

Writing on her website last month, Fujiwara, 42, urged her fans to pressure the government to kill the bill, which the Diet will take up in an extraordinary session scheduled to open Oct. 15.

In speaking out this way, Fujiwara was siding with the Japan Newspaper Publishers & Editors Association in opposing the bill because it threatens the right to know and freedom of speech, thus imperiling democracy.

However, the actress and model now risks a career meltdown because celebrities aren’t supposed to take political stands in Japan — especially ones opposing the state.

But on Sept. 19, the usually spineless national broadcaster NHK took up the cudgels for Fujiwara and highlighted the downside of the draft secrecy bill — even asking whether its enactment would cause Japan to regress to the situation that prevailed in wartime.

Under the proposed new law, civil servants who leak classified information, and journalists who obtain such information, would face up to 10 years’ imprisonment.

Of course NHK interviewed people on both sides of the debate, but its coverage drew attention to New Komeito’s opposition to steamrollering the measure through the Diet, and its calls to its ruling coalition partner the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to back off and seek public understanding.

Meanwhile, the Japan Federation of Bar Associations argues that the new secrecy bill represents an unwarranted risk to the people’s right to know and that enforcing existing legislation would suffice.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga countered that the secrecy legislation is urgent and needs to be ready for the upcoming launch of Japan’s National Security Council, alluding to U.S. reluctance to share highly classified intelligence with the Japanese government — which it views as a leaky sieve. Hence the proposed legislation aims to bolster the Japanese authorities’ ability to keep a secret. Good luck on convincing Washington’s intelligence community — even if it should be red-faced about its own slips.

The draft State Secrets Protection Bill is slated for submission to the Diet this autumn, but widespread criticism has led the government to consider inserting provisions protecting the public’s right to know and journalists’ freedom of reporting.

Although these are fundamental citizen rights guaranteed by the Constitution, it is not clear how the tacked-on protections would amount to more than window dressing on a bill that seeks to vastly widen the scope of information that is kept secret.

If the present bill were to become law, the heads of administrative agencies would have sweeping discretionary authority to classify information related to defense, diplomacy, espionage and terrorism as “special secrets” — but as no review process is envisaged, the system would clearly be open to abuse.

Lawrence Repeta, a law professor from the United States at Meiji University in Tokyo, says, “It appears that the new law will expand the scope of ‘national secrets’ to include nearly anything a government official chooses … (but) the lack of a review mechanism is the biggest flaw.”

The key problem is that “special secrets” are vaguely defined and the loose guidelines would enable the government to designate almost all inconvenient documents as a secret for no legitimate reason. Given officials’ longstanding tendency to hide rather than divulge, and in the absence of a process to overturn their decisions, there is a high risk of secrecy creep.

The flip side of secrecy is transparency. Since 2001, Japan’s central government has adopted information-disclosure legislation that aims to help citizens and organizations, including the media, to exercise their right to know. Information disclosure is based on the principle that government and governance improve to the extent that citizens know what officials are doing. In Japan, the cascade of revelations in the 1990s and since about corruption, abuses of power and dumb decisions that proved harmful to the public interest aroused widespread skepticism and anger toward those who govern — thus goading local governments into adopting information-disclosure legislation.

That grassroots firestorm swept through Japan because the public knows what happens when officials don’t think someone is looking over their shoulder. Finally the central government joined the party, but not before shredding masses of documents — a practice the Ministry of Defense has continued with excessive enthusiasm.

Information-disclosure legislation has altered the relationship between those who govern and citizens, enhancing transparency and accountability while eroding the prevailing cocoon of impunity. The media relies extensively on freedom of information requests to fulfill its watchdog role. But in Japan, promoting transparency is a work in progress because it challenges entrenched government practices and inclinations. Indeed, a bill to strengthen the information- disclosure law died in committee last year due to LDP opposition.

According to Joel Rheuben, an Australian lawyer researching Japanese law at the University of Tokyo, the revisions included “some important provisions that would have made it easier to challenge non-disclosure decisions in judicial proceedings. They were nevertheless opposed by a significant proportion of the Japanese civil service.”

With the LDP in power, the proposed revisions are now off the agenda. Instead, Team Abe is pushing secrecy and plugging leaks, making one wonder what exactly it has to hide or thinks it might need to hide.

Rheuben alerted me to Japan’s non-participation in the Open Government Partnership summit to be held in London later this month. The OGP initiative was promoted vigorously by Britain’s prime minister, David Cameron, at the 2013 G-8 summit he hosted in June. In fact on that occasion Japan signed a joint statement pledging to promote the body — a pledge seemingly since forgotten.

From the Asia-Pacific region, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand — as well as Japanese aid recipients Indonesia, the Philippines and Mongolia — will be attending the London OGP meeting. And without doubt their presence will raise questions about why Japan, which is ostensibly committed to good governance, isn’t attending. Could it be that Tokyo views the OGP as a subversive organization that opposes the way the LDP prefers to govern?

For example, the OGP declaration states: “Governments collect and hold information on behalf of people, and citizens have a right to seek information about governmental activities. We commit to promoting increased access to information and disclosure about governmental activities at every level of government.

“Public engagement, including the full participation of women, increases the effectiveness of governments, which benefit from people’s knowledge, ideas and ability to provide oversight.

“We commit to making policy-formulation and decision-making more transparent, creating and using channels to solicit public feedback, and deepening public participation in developing, monitoring and evaluating government activities. We commit to protecting the ability of not-for-profit and civil society organizations to operate in ways consistent with our commitment to freedom of expression, association, and opinion.”

So why have more than 60 nations jumped on board the OGP express in just two years?

Well, the organization itself says, “Because the desire for honest, efficient and effective government is universal, and is now more urgent than ever. In many places, public confidence in government is at all-time lows, and people are demanding a voice. More and more governments around the world recognize that to keep up, we must open up. We now have the know-how and the technology to reinvent the relationship between citizens and the state.”

Uh-oh, these transparency radicals sound like they might make things difficult for Japan’s vested interests and expose how they are bamboozling the public.

And what about the “tradition” of cash-and-carry politics? Well at least the public can guess why Team Abe is giving the OGP a miss — even if this may soon become a special secret.

Jeff Kingston is Director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.