• Kyodo

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A press club attached to the Nagano Prefectural Government on Tuesday protested Nagano Gov. Yasuo Tanaka’s recent decision to scrap restricted press clubs and replace them with a press center open to all media.

The club, whose members include major newspapers, broadcasters and news agencies, also objected to Tanaka’s announcement last week that the government — not the restricted press clubs — will organize his news conferences.

“It is regrettable that the governor decided to change the host (of the conferences) to the prefectural government without any discussions with the press club,” the organization said in a letter. “We cannot accept a unilateral change.”

Three media firms representing the club handed the letter to a secretarial office in charge of policy affairs. The governor was not present.

The letter says the government would have greater control over information if it controls news.

The objecting press club is the largest of three within the Nagano Prefectural Government building; the reaction from the two smaller press groups was not immediately available.

Tanaka defended his decision Monday, saying the new system is intended to provide greater transparency and denied reports suggesting it was meant to conceal potentially unfavorable information about the government.

The banishment of the press clubs, long criticized for monopolizing information, marks the latest attempt at reform by Tanaka, an award-winning novelist who was swept to power in October on a ticket of radical change.

Nagano will be the first prefectural government to allow all media unrestricted access. The municipal government of Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture, took a similar step in 1996.

The three press clubs attached to the Nagano prefectural government have 92 reporters from 30 companies registered as members. The prefectural police operate a separate press club system.

According to Tanaka, the prefectural government plans to set up a tentatively named Press Center after dismantling the rooms currently used by the clubs.

Japanese press clubs typically use facilities provided free by government ministries, police, the courts, local authorities and other public institutions. Nonmember journalists are restricted from attending news conferences organized by these clubs unless they obtain prior approval.

Foreign media have also criticized the clubs for hampering their work in Japan.

Club members argue that while the space and facilities are provided free, they operate the clubs voluntarily to represent the interests of the nation’s right to information.

Critics, however, say reporters belonging to the clubs merely regurgitate information from government authorities without critical analysis.

Foreigners addressed

Nagano Gov. Yasuo Tanaka on Monday told foreign journalists that his latest reform effort — the abolishment of Japan’s vaunted press clubs — will give all media organs, including foreign media, equal access to information in his prefecture.

“(Mainstream newspapers and TV stations) just want to lead a peaceful and quiet life (by maintaining the press club system),” he said in English during a speech at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan in Tokyo.

Tanaka, who has made a number of headlines since he was elected in October, made a fresh splash earlier this month by announcing he would close down three press clubs within the Nagano government office building by the end of June as part of his efforts to destroy all forms of vested interest.

Tanaka explained the exclusive nature of press clubs and how they monopolize perks funded by taxpayers.

In the case of Nagano Prefecture, the three clubs use office space rent-free while the government pays the electricity bill and pays the salaries of the clubs’ administrative staff, he said, adding that the estimated cost amounts to about 15 million yen a year.

He furthermore expressed his frustration over the media’s foot-dragging and outright indifference toward his initiative.

“None of the Japanese mainstream newspapers treated my ‘no press club’ declaration in their editorials,” said the novelist-turned-politician, although they have been loudly calling for the country’s political and economic structural reform.

“The media characterized me as being dictatorial, but if I were really so, they would not be able to express themselves like they do today,” he said.

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