The politics of secrets

The contentious bill for protection of state secrets — now under deliberation in the Upper House — even keeps secret what pieces of government information have been designated as special secrets and could punish people who try to obtain them, even if they are not aware that the information they seek has been given such a designation. There is no place for such totalitarian-style legislation, which threatens press freedoms and the people’s right to know, in democratic Japan.

Under the bill, officials who handle designated secrets can be punished by up to 10 years in prison for leaking them. People who “conspire,” “incite” or “instigate” in the leaking of designated secrets can be sentenced to up to five years in prison — even if the secrets in fact have not been leaked to them.

The bill can be read to mean that citizens — including journalists and members of civic groups, for example — could be punished for trying to access government-designated secrets even if it is done in a casual manner. They could be accused of “conspiracy” for discussing approaching government officials for pieces of information that happened to have been designated as special secrets, or “incitement” for just asking officials to release such information. Even if they have no way of knowing beforehand whether the information they’re seeking is a designated secret.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe repeatedly brushed aside concerns that the bill will restrict the people’s right to know. But when it actually goes into force, the threat of such heavy penalties alone could be enough to discourage efforts by people to find out what their government is doing.

Masako Mori, state minister in charge of the legislation, told an Upper House committee session that the government would consider creating a code of conduct between government officials and journalists. She then retracted the statement a day later, saying that such an act could discourage reporting activities by media organizations. But later in the same day she returned to the original position over the matter.

This and many other flip-flops in government explanations regarding the bill suggest that the government itself has no clear idea about what kinds of relevant concrete measures it plans to take in accordance with the legislation.

People’s concern that their right to know could be undermined is evident in the unanimous opposition to the bill expressed by participants in the Nov. 25 public hearing held in the city of Fukushima. Seven officials and experts invited by both the ruling coalition and the opposition camp were speaking on the basis of their experience in the Fukushima nuclear crisis.

Mayor Tamotsu Baba of the town of Namie, picked by the Liberal Democratic Party to speak at the hearing, pointed out that the scope of information to be designated as special secrets is too wide and too vague. On the basis of the experience that many local people were exposed to low-level radiation because the government did not promptly disclose a prediction by SPEEDI (System for Prediction of Environmental Emergency Dose Information) after the meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, Baba expressed distrust toward the government’s inclination to conceal a wide range of information from the public.

Both Baba and Hiroyasu Maki, vice president of the Fukushima Prefectural Bar Association, invited by the Democratic Party of Japan, expressed a fear that the government will hide more information about nuclear power plants. Maki said that once the bill is enacted, the scope of government secrets will expand due to bureaucrats’ arbitrary interpretation and application, and that information on such matters as damage to tanks containing radioactive water from the crippled nuclear power plant may be hidden.

A reply by an LDP lawmaker present that nuclear power plants will not be subject to the application of the bill was not convincing. Both Baba and Maki pointed out that the government can hide information concerning nuclear power plants by justifying the act as necessary for the sake of counterterrorism.

Yukiteru Naka, chairman of Tohoku Enterprise Co., picked by Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Restoration Party), said that people have the right to know correct information about the safety of nuclear power plants. He said that it is important to allow the existence of whistle-blowers, apparently referring to the lack of a provision in the bill to protect whistle-blowers. The statements by these three people are much more convincing than the explanations by the LDP lawmaker.

Mitsugi Araki, a lawyer, picked by the Japan Communist Party, pointed out that it is impossible for people to know what information has been designated as special secrets and that they may be punished for unknowingly seeking or leaking such secrets. He said that this would “terrorize” people and have the effect of restricting their various activities.

Nobuyoshi Hatanaka, a specially appointed professor at Iwaki Junior College, picked by New Komeito, said that it is impossible to promote people’s public interests if they are prohibited from access to government-held information even though security and diplomacy are matters to be handled by the government.

These people convincingly demonstrated the grave problems inherent in the secrecy bill.

As if to ignore the fears expressed by these people about the bill, the LDP, New Komeito and Your Party rammed the bill through the Lower House on the night of the following day. After the bill reached the floor of the Upper House, Abe has again said that the secrecy bill has “layers of devices” to prevent arbitrary designation of government information as special secrets. But it is clear that the bill does not have such mechanisms.

The bill would solidify control and monopoly of government information by the administrative branch — and in concrete terms by bureaucrats — without independent oversight.

A revision made to the bill calls on the government to “consider” a third-party mechanism to examine the validity of the classification process, but government officials indicate that such an organ would be set up within the government organization. It is clear from the government’s explanations so far that such an organ would only do perfunctory examinations and would not examine the content of designated secrets.

In the Upper House interpellation, lawmakers — whether they are from the ruling or opposition bloc — must expose the dangerous nature of the bill and do their utmost to kill it.