Will wiretapping hurt the news?


Staff writer

Protecting sources is one of the most important principles in journalism, one that a writers group believes is threatened by the proposed wiretapping law.

The Upper House Judicial Affairs Committee began deliberations last week on a controversial package of bills to allow law enforcement authorities to monitor private communications during investigations of organized crimes.

Although Naoki Inose, 52, a noted nonfiction writer and board member of the Japan P.E.N. Club, said he is aware of the importance of combating organized crime for public safety, he added, “We, as journalists, must fight to put on the brakes” so the bills don’t cut into the freedom of the media.

The bills exempt workers in a number of professions from being wiretapped, but not journalists, raising the possibility that their telephone and Internet conversations with sources suspected of involvement in organized crime could be monitored by investigators.

Because the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, the Liberal Party and their de facto ally, New Komeito, have a majority in both chambers of the Diet, the bills, despite staunch minority opposition, are expected to be passed in the current session. They cleared the Lower House on June 1.

The bills allow law enforcement authorities with warrants to monitor communications to investigate four types of crimes — those involving drugs, guns, premeditated murder committed by groups and mass smuggling of illegal immigrants into Japan.

Opposition parties argue that the bills threaten the constitutional guarantee of the fundamental right to privacy of communications and protection of privacy.

Broadcast, newspaper and other print media unions have protested that giving authorities the power to wiretap may ultimately violate freedom of the press.

If the bills are passed, journalists will no longer be able to guarantee sources their privacy, the unions contend, saying this would restrict news gathering and damage the nation’s right to know.

The Japan Newspaper Association refrained from making a statement on the issue on grounds that each news organization has its own opinion.

Alarmed by the quick passage of the bills by the Lower House, the Japan P.E.N. Club, the Japanese chapter of the International Association of Poets, Playwrights, Editors, Essayists and Novelists, decided to challenge the Upper House on the issue. The group consists of more than 1,800 writers and journalists in Japan.

“We wanted to raise awareness of some of the problems with the bills and clarify what really needs to be discussed,” said Inose, who chairs the P.E.N. Club’s freedom of expression committee, which took the initiative in the action.

Soon after the bills cleared the Lower House, the group sent questionnaires by fax and e-mail to all 252 Upper House members, asking their opinions about the bills, particularly about the possibility of depriving journalists of the right to conceal their sources.

According to Article 15 of the wiretapping bill, communication between a targeted crime suspect and doctors, dentists, nurses, midwives, lawyers, patent agents, notary publics and religious advisers cannot be monitored.

Workers in these professions are barred by the Criminal Procedure Act from releasing private information about their clients learned through their business, and thus have the right to refuse to testify in court on issues that threaten the privacy of their clients.

Journalists, despite similar work ethics, are not included in the code’s list, and may be charged if they refuse to testify in court, Inose noted.

“I’ve always thought that the right to refuse to testify should be secured for journalists in the first place, but there is little debate about it,” he said.

Inose pointed out that Germany passed a law two years ago that exempts journalists from being wiretapped. Journalists have also been included in Germany’s list of professionals who can refuse to provide court testimony. “It’s easy to just say ‘no’ to the bills like some political parties, but that won’t lead to anything but self-satisfaction,” he said. “You have to give alternatives.”

Inose said he hopes the issue will be discussed in the Upper House, leading to revisions of the bills. If revisions are added in the Upper House, they will have to be taken up by the Lower House again, which may slow passage of the bills.

“As long as the issues are deliberated, it will eventually be reflected in the interpretation of the bills, even if the Upper House fails to make additional revisions,” Inose added.

“At this time, it’s really important that we clarify and point out what needs to be discussed,” he said.

Sixty-one Upper House members returned P.E.N.’s questionnaire as of July 5. Their responses are posted on the P.E.N. Club’s Web site at http://www.mmjp.or.jp/japan-