Foreign media feels the heat from prickly government minders


Special To The Japan Times

Last month, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung journalist Carsten Germis wrote about the Japanese government harassing him just for doing his job. In his view, the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is overly sensitive to criticism, especially reporting about what Germis calls “a move by the right to whitewash history.”

The Japanese consul general in Frankfurt, Hideyuki Sakamoto, allegedly accused Germis of taking money and abetting the Chinese propaganda machine. In an interview with the Asahi Shimbun on Tuesday, Sakamoto denied he made such comments, but the editor he met, Peter Sturm, emailed me and confirmed the consul general made the allegations (and in excellent German) and that there was no misunderstanding.

Officials everywhere get testy about negative coverage, a fact that doesn’t surprise Walter Hatch, director of the Oak Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Colby College in Waterville, Maine.

“Stop the presses: (Foreign Ministry) officials are now calling editors around the world to whine about stories by foreign reporters! Is this behavior unique to the government of Japan? I don’t really think so,” Hatch says. “I agree that the Abe administration is behaving boorishly, but I am not persuaded that its behavior is particularly exceptional.”

Indeed it is not. Journalists in China work under far more difficult circumstances while South Korea detained Japanese journalist Tatsuya Kato for several months for reporting a rumor about President Park Geun-hye that had already been published in the local media. In the United States, the administrations of both George W. Bush and Barack Obama have also been aggressive in dealing with critical reporters.

“What Germis wrote makes the Foreign Ministry look incompetent rather than anything else,” says Sebastian Moffett, a former reporter for The Wall Street Journal in Tokyo. “I think the Frankfurt consul general should be removed from his post for making such laughable accusations. It reads like something out of a media relations training book, showing exactly what not to do.”

I contacted several current and former foreign correspondents to ask how the Japanese government engages the media, and based on their responses it seems the government’s public relations team is more inept and amateurish than a sinister threat to press freedom. Celebrated old-timers such as Robert Whiting, Andrew Horvat, Bill Emmott and Karel von Wolferen (American, British, Canadian and Dutch) say that media pressure is not new, and all had run-ins with officials over their reporting.

However, none were subject to the smearing experienced by Germis. Indeed, Sturm said this was the first time any diplomat had engaged in such tactics with him.

Nowadays, Abe’s critics are often accused of Japan-bashing based on the fatuous notion that all criticism of the prime minister stems from anti-Japanese sentiment. This is a devious tactic relying on cheap-shot ad hominem attacks, and evades engaging the arguments. Many of Abe’s critics at home and abroad see him as a threat to the country’s norms and values, and would argue that it is precisely because they like Japan that they express dissent. If they are Japan-bashers, so too are most Japanese because polls show a majority opposes every one of Abe signature policies — from constitutional revision and arms exports to nuclear reactor restarts and state secrecy legislation.

It is odious that some journalists are tarnished by false accusations and others put in the awkward position of having to demonstrate “love” for Japan with fawning praise or by remaining silent. No journalist in a democracy should face a loyalty test.

On instructions from the Japanese Embassy in Washington, officials here warned journalists not to interview Koichi Nakano, a respected political scientist at Sophia University. More recently, a government media minder spread rumors to a Western journalist that South Korea’s Park has a problem with the “comfort women” issue because her father was an officer in the Imperial Japanese Army and thus must have sampled their sexual services. All that this spin doctor achieved was to appear unprofessional while reinforcing negative perceptions about Team Abe’s feckless views on history.

Martin Fackler, the current bureau chief in Tokyo for The New York Times, says that in 2009 he was asked by the government to write a self-criticism of the newspaper because of his predecessor’s unwelcome reporting about the comfort women. Naturally he refused and the prime minister’s office continues to give him the cold shoulder.

“It’s completely self-defeating for Japan: It doesn’t prevent me from writing what I want, and in fact has the opposite effect of denying the Japanese government a chance to get their side more fully into our stories,” Fackler says.

Anna Fifield, The Washington Post’s Tokyo correspondent, points out that what may work with the locals doesn’t necessarily work with non-Japanese journalists.

“As we can see in the cases of NHK and Asahi being hauled over the coals for their reporting, the Japanese government is trying to silence anyone who doesn’t toe the government line, but the government has a much harder time restraining the foreign press in this way,” she says. “That doesn’t mean they’re not trying. Like many other foreign journalists, I’ve been on the receiving end of unwelcome emails trying to influence my coverage on the history issue.”

Fifield also confirms that Japanese Embassy officials lobby her editors about her reporting.

David Pilling of the Financial Times says he has heard of some “pretty bloodcurdling stuff” when it comes to how the government deals with local reporters.

“Abe’s bullying tactics are worse when it comes to Japanese journalists and academics, but they do try it on even with foreigners,” he says. In his view, “Things have ratcheted up a notch under Abe, though it wasn’t great under (former Prime Minister Junichiro) Koizumi either.”

Spin doctors everywhere massage the message, wine and dine journalists, dangle access as an inducement and take umbrage at what they feel is unfair reporting, but what is now going on in Japan is getting nastier, even as it remains clumsy.

New York Times journalist Hiroko Tabuchi believes that such efforts make the government “look clueless, petty or worse.” Her New York Times colleague Norimitsu Onishi agrees.

“Successive Japanese governments have stood out because of the ineffectiveness of their media strategy,” he says. “They apply the kind of unsubtle pressure that may work domestically, but invariably has the opposite effect with the foreign media.”

Howard French, a professor at Columbia University’s school of journalism, agrees with former colleague Onishi. As a journalist reporting from Africa, he had to deal with thuggish threats regularly.

“Imagine my surprise when I arrived in Japan, a society where democratic rights were guaranteed — including freedom of the press — to be called in by representatives of the state whose aim was to get me to be quiet, or failing that, at least, to change my tune,” French says.

Fackler explains that some degree of push-back by governments against media coverage is normal in most democracies.

“For instance, I have dealt with White House press handlers who will bite hard if they think reporters have misrepresented what the president said,” he says. “On the other side of the coin, the Japanese government goes further in certain ways, playing this game of denying access to and bad-mouthing journalists who don’t toe the line.”

Why is the government squandering so much political capital on promoting revisionism? Ellis Krauss, professor emeritus at the University of California, San Diego, calls it the “Abenigma.”

“The real mystery is why Abe and the Japanese media don’t realize how counter to Japan’s own national interests this is,” he says. “War memory is an issue that Japan cannot win on. Right-wing denials only help the Chinese and Korean nationalists (who are themselves irrational on this issue), and will alienate Americans, their strongest ally, and the Europeans and Australians — their natural democratic friends.

“The best thing the Japanese government and right wing can do for Japan’s own interests is just shut up on these issues.”

Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.