Government without oversight

People have the right to know what their government is doing. Ensuring this right is the foundation of democracy. The state secrets bill, which the Abe administration Thursday rammed through the Upper House Special Committee on National Security for enactment, undermines this foundation because it blocks citizens’ access to an extremely large amount of government-held information. This also means that lawmakers’ access to important information held by bureaucracy will be blocked.

Citizens and lawmakers should be aware that the bill will greatly change the nature of Japanese politics because it will severely limit the powers of people’s representatives and the Diet itself despite the fact that Article 41 of the Constitution says, “The Diet shall be the highest organ of state power, and shall be the sole lawmaking organ of the State.” Japan’s democracy is now in a deep crisis.

Even if the bill becomes a law, it will be important for people to continue grass-roots movements to oppose it with perseverance for years to come to prevent it from being used for curbing their right to know and to express their thought and opinions.

The bill gives heads of administrative bodies discretionary power to designate almost an unlimited amount of information related to security, diplomacy, counterintelligence and counterterrorism as special secrets without effective third-party, independent oversight. Prison terms of up to 10 years will be given to national public servants who leak special secrets, and prison terms of up to five years to ordinary citizens, including journalists, who try to get such information and to Diet members who leak such information.

The bill’s ramifications are serious. It will greatly increase the power of the administrative branch of government to carry out policies as it likes without going through wide and informed discussions among lawmakers, knowledgeable people and ordinary citizens. It is very likely that Cabinet members will just rubber- stamp decisions made by bureaucrats on which specific information should be designated as special secrets under the bill.

There is the danger that bureaucrats will wield overwhelming power over ordinary citizens by monopolizing information and that the government will make wrong decisions in matters of security and diplomacy because of the lack of adequate public oversight. Thus the bill undermines not only freedom of the press and the people’s right to know but also the fundamental constitutional principle that “sovereignty power rests with the people.”

After the bill was submitted to the Diet, many civic, academic, human rights and other groups, including the Japan Federation of Bar Associations, Amnesty International Japan, Human Rights Watch, the International Association of Journalists, PEN International and the Fukushima prefectural assembly, voiced their opposition to the bill. U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay also joined them.

Throughout the legislative process, the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and New Komeito continued to ignore various concerns expressed by people over the basic nature of the bill.

That the ruling LDP and New Komeito pushed the bill even as it clearly endangers important constitutional principles has exposed their orientation in the matters of principles of democracy. It also must not be forgotten that the opposition Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Restoration Party) and Your Party helped the ruling bloc by striking deals with it that failed to change the basic nature of the secrecy bill. What Nippon Ishin no Kai got as an amendment from the ruling bloc turned the bill from bad into worse.

The original bill said that the classification of secrets can be extended beyond 30 years with Cabinet approval. Under the amendment, although all secrets have to be declassified after 60 years in principle, information in seven special categories including vaguely defined “important information to be defined by government ordinances” can remain secret semi-permanently.

People should not forget that the bill has an ominous nature. Because people cannot know beforehand what kinds of information have been designated as secrets, it is very likely that citizens, including journalists and members of civic groups, unknowingly will try to learn of such secrets.

Citizens could be accused of “conspiracy” for approaching government officials to obtain pieces of information that happened to have been designated as special secrets, or of “incitement” for just asking officials to release such information.

Once they are indicted, it is very likely that they will be tried without being informed of what the secret in question actually is. Discussions in a court on whether the secret deserves designation as a secret will likely be excluded.

The definition of terrorism included in the bill is such that the possibility cannot be ruled out that state authorities will put citizens engaged in political and civic movements under surveillance and suppress activities that they regard as acts of terrorism as defined by the bill. The article’s definition of terrorism includes the following phrase: activities that force political and other principles or opinions on the state and other people — a definition far more encompassing than the widely accepted definition of terrorism at present. The bill thus carries the danger of allowing the state to intervene in the sphere of citizens’ thought and conscience.

Liberal Democratic Party Secretary-General Shigeru Ishiba inadvertently brought into sharp relief the dangerous nature of the bill when he criticized public demonstrations near the Diet building by those opposed to it. He wrote in his blog on Nov. 29: “I believe the tactics of simply shouting (opinions) at the top of one’s voice seems not so different from an act of terrorism in essence.”

State authorities could regard political, civic and other activities by citizens aimed at persuading the government and other organizations or people to consider opposing opinions or demands as acts of terrorism and not hesitate to monitor, investigate or suppress their activities, even before such activities become public. Moreover, if someone learns of such actions by the state and leaks this information to others, they could face arrest because such information may have been designated as a secret under the bill.

It will be important for people and civic groups to tenaciously expose the dangers of the bill and watch and report the moves of state authorities, and to enlighten other people who may not be aware of the dangers so that people as a whole can decisively express their call for repealing the bill in future elections.

People should not make light of their own power. They should exercise their power as sovereigns of the Japanese state to change the situation.

  • chang-hs

    An excellent article! I read this editorial to all my family so that they could understand the danger of the bill. Thank you.