Limits of secrecy oversight panel

An expert council whose task it is to propose to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe a unified standard for designating and declassifying government secrets under the state secrets law started its work Jan. 17. The council may be able to serve as a minor check against the arbitrary designation of secrets by bureaucrats and heads of administrative bodies, but the defects of the law will remain.

The law gives heads of administrative bodies discretionary power to designate an almost unlimited amount of information as special secrets in the fields of security, diplomacy, counter-intelligence and counterterrorism. Up to 10 years’ imprisonment will be handed down to bureaucrats who leak designated secrets, thus severely limiting the access of ordinary citizens, including journalists, to government information. People who “conspire,” “incite” or “instigate” in leaking designated secrets can be sentenced up to five years in prison — even if those “secrets” are not leaked to them.

The council members should do their best to minimize anti-democratic effects of the law. The public, on its part, needs to push vigorous grass-roots movements to have the law repealed.

The council members were appointed in accordance with Article 18 of the law, which requires the prime minister to listen to the opinions of experts in deciding on or revising a standard for the designation and declassification of special secrets.

But their selection is lopsided. Of the seven members, only one — Tsutomu Shimizu, a lawyer and head of the Japan Federation of Bar Associations’ committee on countermeasures for information-related problems — has clearly stated his opposition to the special secrets law. The head of the council is Tsuneo Watanabe, top official at the Yomiuri Shimbun. The newspaper’s basic editorial stance is to support the law from the viewpoint of making Japan’s secrets protection system reliable in an increasingly difficult security environment. But it also says that the law should be implemented carefully so as not to cause suspicion that it undermines people’s right to know.

Attention must be paid to the fact that the council’s power is limited. It has no power to look at information designated as special secrets and to examine whether the designation is proper. It only discusses a general standard for designation of secrets. There is no guarantee that the government will adopt proposals made by the council without any revisions.

Even more problematic is that the minutes of council members’ discussions will not be made public. Only summaries will be made public. This secretive approach will deepen public suspicion about the law and the Abe administration.

Upon his appointment as head of the council, Watanabe issued a statement that he thinks it is his duty to monitor application of the law so that it does not restrict freedom of speech and freedom of the press and news coverage even one iota. In accordance with this view, council members should discuss the defects of the law without hesitation so that people can have wide and informed discussions about the law. As long as worries about the law remain, the government should refrain from enforcing it.