Mr. Abe’s undemocratic secrecy bill

The Abe Cabinet today is submitting to the Diet a bill designed to protect state information that the government deems vital to national security. The bill, which will give the heads of administrative bodies discretionary power to designate an extremely wide range of information as “special secrets,” will greatly limit the ability of the general public and mass media to access relevant information, thus undermining freedom of the press and the people’s right to know. If the content of the bill is closely scrutinized, it becomes clear that it will undermine the foundation of Japan’s democracy. We strongly urge Diet members, whether they belong to the ruling or the opposition bloc, to oppose the bill and defeat its passage.

Since the bill will enable the bureaucracy to hide an enormous amount of government information from the public, it appears to violate the basic principle of the Constitution that “sovereign power resides with the people.” Under the bill, the heads of administrative bodies will have discretionary power to designate information as special secrets in the areas of defense, diplomacy, prevention of “special harmful activities” (mainly intelligence activities by foreign countries) and prevention of terrorism if they think the information merits special protection. National public servants who are charged with leaking such secrets could face up to 10 years’ imprisonment.

The bill includes a clause that says due consideration must be given to freedom of the press and people’s right to know. But this clause will do little to uphold these fundamental democratic principles because it is merely a declaration and lacks any enforcement mechanism.

Given the possibility of imprisonment for up to 10 years, it is unlikely that national public servants will disclose information designated as special secrets even if they think that the information merits disclosure to the public for the sake of promoting informed discussions on the matter.

It is also extremely worrisome that the bill provides for punishing reporters who try to investigate “special secrets.” It states that prison terms of up to five years will be given to people who conspire to get special secrets or instigate national public servants to leak such secrets. The government says that as long as journalists carry out their reporting activities in a “normal manner,” they will not be punished. But the definition of “normal reporting” varies depending upon one’s view of the issue at hand, and in democratic societies journalists have a duty to keep the people fully informed on their government’s activities. If the government is to solely determine what constitutes “normal reporting,” its definition will become a tool for censorship. It’s also unclear whether reporters who press national servants to discuss special secrets would be regarded as “instigating” them to talk.

Diet members should realize that the bill threatens their free speech rights and undermines their ability to properly carry out their duties. It provides for up to five years’ imprisonment to Diet members who leak special secrets. This provision will make it almost impossible for them to discuss information designated as special secrets with their aides, experts or even during Diet interpellations. This provision clearly undermines Article 41 of the Constitution, which says that “the Diet shall be the highest organ of state power, and shall be the sole lawmaking organ of the State.”

The bill allows the defense minister to designate almost all information related to defense and the Self-Defense Forces as special secrets if he or she chooses. This would include 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 production methods of weapons in the development stage, and designs and capabilities of defense-related facilities.

The foreign minister will be able to designate as special secrets information concerning “negotiations” and the scope of cooperation with foreign governments or international organizations in the security field. This concept is so wide and vague that the foreign minister will be able to expand the scope of special secrets as he or she desires and the government will be able to conduct secret security negotiations with foreign countries. Information related to guarding nuclear power plants to prevent terrorist attacks could also be classified as special secrets.

The bill includes a provision allowing the heads of administrative bodies to designate “other matters that concern security” as special secrets. This provision will enable the government to designate an almost unlimited amount of information as special secrets.

As for the procedure to screen national public servants permitted to handle special secrets, it includes a check into whether they have relations with “special harmful activities” and whether they have relations with activities that force political and other principles and positions on the state and people. These provisions are so wide that they will lead to investigations into the thoughts of national public servants who are being scrutinized as well as those of people close to them, including relatives.

In addition to the discretionary power given to the heads of administrative bodies with regard to the designation of special secrets, another significant flaw of the bill is that it has no internal mechanism — such as a closed-door committee of independent experts — to verify whether the designation of information as a special secret is justifiable from the viewpoint of protecting people’s right to know.

The bill calls on the government to listen to the opinions of experts when writing the general guideline for designating special secrets. But because these experts will not examine the propriety of the specific designation, they will be almost useless in protecting the people’s right to know. Another flaw of the bill is that the heads of administrative bodies can renew the designation of a special secret every five years for as long as they want. The bill lacks a mechanism to automatically end the designation of special secrets after a period of time has passed. Moreover, people can’t even know what items have become special secrets.

The bill, which will greatly increase the government bureaucracy’s power to control information, poses a tremendous threat to the future of Japanese democracy. People must take grass-roots action to express their opposition to the secrecy bill and to make it clearly known to their Diet representatives that they expect them to vote against it.