Keeping it in the club


On Oct. 16 last year, Hans van der Lugt, a correspondent for the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad, telephoned the Land, Infrastructure and Transport Ministry with a simple inquiry.

All he wanted to know was the location of an open hearing being organized by the ministry the following day. The hearing was a formal procedure at which Haruho Fujii, former president of the semigovernmental Japan Highway Public Corp., was to be quizzed by officials about the corporation’s alleged attempts to hide the debt-ridden state of its finances. The story was hitting the headlines.

Instead of being given the information he needed, though, ministry officials told van der Lugt that “only members of the ministry’s kisha club [press club] may attend the hearing.” In other words, he had no chance of attending.

“Again,” he thought.

So van der Lugt, who also chairs the Foreign Press In Japan, a group of about 150 foreign journalists based here, set about protesting against the situation — again.

After the hearing, he sent letters to Nobuteru Ishihara, the transport minister, and to Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi explaining what happened and demanding that foreign journalists holding the Foreign Ministry-issued journalists’ ID card be allowed equal access to media events.

Unclear explanations

For van der Lugt, the issue is quite simple.

“It is alright for kisha clubs to exist,” he says, “but it doesn’t mean they should be allowed to stop nonmembers from attending press conferences and other events. I want to be able to go if I think I should do for my work. I have both the Foreign Ministry-issued ID card and the Kokkai kisha-sho [the government-issued Diet press card]. I am a journalist. If there is a press conference, I want to be able to go there.”

Although van der Lugt says he has encountered unclear explanations about similar situations before, in this case the government openly admitted that the ministry had decided to limit attendance at the hearing to members of its kisha club only.

In a written statement sent to van der Lugt, the ministry perplexingly explained that the decision was “one way of opening the hearing.”

It also said that the size of the venue allowed only about 50 reporters to attend, and so it was difficult to accommodate other reporters apart from the 45 kisha club members from major media organizations. And although the statement acknowledged that this practice had been heavily criticized by magazine journalists and others not in the club, the ministry had no intention to particularly exclude foreign correspondents.

“It’s outrageous,” van der Lugt says. “It is always like that. They always say ‘maybe next time.’ They always say the place is too small. But Japan is the second-biggest economy in the world. Do they say there are no larger rooms in Tokyo?”

This incident, again, clearly highlights one of the problems of Japan’s kisha club system.

The clubs, which date back around a century, over the years have been convened as simple friendship groups, or as voluntary organizations for reporting. At present, there are thought to be around 800 of these clubs nationwide, including ones covering government ministries, the Prime Minister’s Official Residence, the Diet, municipalities and private-sector organizations. Basically, they are groups of reporters assigned to certain official bodies to cover the issues concerning the bodies on a daily basis.

Naturally, foreign correspondents as well as freelance journalists and those working for Japanese magazines are left out in the kisha club system.

Clearly — as has been widely discussed in the media — this is a system in which not only are certain groups of journalists excluded, but also one in which cozy relationships between the reporters and their sources can easily develop. As a result, news management could become easier for anyone wanting to manage it.

It was because of such kisha club characteristics that, in 2001, maverick Nagano Gov. Yasuo Tanaka abolished his prefectural government’s press clubs and established a press center open to all journalists. This was undoubtedly a notable move, but nationally, the situation has yet to change anything like as dramatically — as van der Lugt’s case shows.

Nonetheless, recently, there are signs that something is stirring in the bureaucratic ether.

This March, the Nihon Shimbun Kyokai (Japan Newspaper Publishers and Editors Association) reiterated its 2003 April instruction to its members to remove any provisions in press club membership guidelines restricting reporting to association members — one working for mainstream newspapers, news agencies and broadcasting organizations.

Paramount significance

Additionall — and of paramount significance to the likes of van der Lugt — the heavyweight association also requested that its members ensure the access of foreign journalists with the Foreign Ministry-issued ID to news conferences. Citing the case of last year’s hearing of the Japan Highway Public Corp., it particularly asked press clubs to take measures to support the participation of members of the foreign press corps at such events in cases when the venue was officially deemed to not be large enough.

At the same time, the Foreign Ministry sent a statement to a wide spectrum of public bodies, including government and police agencies, as well as municipal bodies, requesting similar practices be observed.

Behind these important recent developments are not only complaints from the likes of van der Lugt, but also growing international criticism of Japan’s press club system.

In a document issued in 2003, titled “Priority Proposals for Regulatory Reform in Japan,” the European Union called the kisha club system “a restraint on free trade in information” and called for its abolition. It also requested that foreign journalists be ensured access to official media events.

The EU document said that the system works negatively for consumers of information since “by giving both officials and journalists a vested interest in maintaining the exclusivity of a story, the system encourages over-reliance on a single source of information and a lack of cross-checking, thus diminishing the quality of information available to the wider public.”

In response to the EU proposals, in a written statement last December, the Japan Newspaper Publishers and Editors Association said that there was no need to abolish the system because the press clubs in Japan effectively function to ensure people’s right to know. It said the proposals “lack understanding of the historical background of the press club system, and are considered to have been created based on misunderstandings, biased views and inaccurate information.”

However, the association did also say it would make further efforts to make the system more open — efforts that have taken the form of the instructions it issued to members in March.

That move, by a body that has for so long appeared reluctant to change the system, has been welcomed in many quarters. Describing it as “a step forward to improve the problem,” Takaaki Hattori, professor of media law at Rikkyo University in Tokyo, says that “it is meaningful that Japan faces up to the problems of the press club system seriously, as it has been maintaining it in the same form out of a sort of habit.

“But at the same time,” Hattori says, “It is a problem on which reporters themselves should have moved earlier, before the EU issued its proposals and then the association its instructions.”

Supporters of the press club system often cite its origins in 1890, when journalists in Tokyo formed a group which successfully overcame entrenched opposition to the press covering the first session of the Diet. Indeed, the Japan Newspaper Publishers and Editors Association maintains that the system has played an important role in demanding disclosure of information by the authorities.

Convenient PR forums

In Hattori’s view, though, this argument begs the question of whether Japanese journalists are unable to challenge authorities unless they do so as a group.

“I do not deny the power that the kisha clubs had against the authorities in earlier times,” he says. “But the practice has created a negative consequence as well, which is that the authorities may do nothing unless the group of journalists demands it. In principle, however, they have a responsibility to respond to even one journalist.”

In addition, Hattori says, there are the twin dangers that reporters with the privilege of kisha club membership may tend to report from a standpoint closer to that of the authorities than of ordinary citizens — while the authorities can come to regard press clubs as convenient PR forums.

In fact, he regards the problems of the press club system as being a grave matter concerning the quality of journalism and eventually the quality of democracy in this country.

Similarly, although NRC Handelsblad’s van der Lugt welcomes recent improvements, at least for foreign correspondents, he and Hattori still share concerns.

“In the discussion between the EU and Japan, there are two issues,” van der Lugt says. “One is about access and the other is about the press club system itself.

“What is important for us foreign correspondents is simply to have access. However, what is important for Japan is whether the kisha club system is a good system or not.

“That is something the Japanese people themselves must resolve — but I think it is a very important issue for Japan.”