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Concern over freedom of the press has been the media’s main focus in covering a government panel’s proposal to launch an independent human rights watchdog, while other key aspects have been largely ignored.

The 20-member Justice Ministry panel, in its final report released Friday, wants a new organ to address abuses under four broad categories: discrimination, abusive treatment, human rights violations by the state and rights violations by the media.

Many experts on human rights issues are skeptical that the proposed body can effectively deal with violations by the state.

The critics say the organ may be soft on abuses by police and immigration officers, even though this area was the ministry proposal’s original target.

The office of the United Nations Human Rights Commissioner advised Japan in 1998 to create an independent body to address human rights abuses by state authorities, especially at police and immigration facilities.

The Justice Ministry panel’s report, however, limits the cases involving state authorities to “discrimination and abuse.”

Lawyer Yuichi Kaido, who leads the nongovernmental organization Center for Prisoners’ Rights, said abuses by the state are mainly concentrated at detention facilities such as police stations, prisons, immigration facilities and mental homes.

Human rights abuses at these places include long periods of interrogation by law enforcement officials, limited access to outside society and punitive treatment at officials’ discretion.

“I wonder how much is covered by the term ‘abuse’ (as it is used in the report),” Kaido said, adding that the organ should cover every kind of “inhuman and degrading treatment” as defined by international standards.

Experts are also unsure if the organ can be truly independent of state power, especially that of the Justice Ministry.

The report suggests that the new organ be created through reorganization of the existing Civil Liberties Bureau of the Justice Ministry, but the Japan Federation of Bar Associations, for example, has proposed that it be placed directly under the prime minister so it can be more independent.

In contrast to the lack of sufficient debate on how the new organ can deal with abuses by public authorities, a number of legal experts, journalists and human rights activists stridently stated their opinion that it could intervene excessively in civil disputes, possibly disrupting freedom of expression.

The final report says the proposed organ should take “active relief” measures against journalists invading the privacy of people involved in crimes and accidents, including juveniles, as well as “excessive” news-gathering activities.

The media industry and some legal experts strongly oppose such an idea, saying it would intensify state regulation of the press.

For example, the bar federation argued that news-gathering activities aimed at public figures like politicians or high-ranking bureaucrats should not be covered by the proposed organ. The final report does not touch on any such exemptions.

Meanwhile, some said they will support the proposed body’s active commitment to civil cases.

Masaki Inaba, program director for advocacy at the Japan Association for Lesbian and Gay Movement, said he welcomes the final report for touching on discrimination based on sexual orientation. It is a “historical achievement” that the human rights of sexual minorities are recognized at the state level, he said.

Abusive expressions toward homosexuals, widely used on television entertainment programs, are one of major concerns to be addressed, Inaba said, adding that broadcasters often pay little attention to the problem.

Some journalists, authors and legal experts have already stated concern that the new organ could suppress their freedom of expression.

But Inaba disagreed.

“They say ‘freedom of ideas and expression,’ but such freedom is enjoyed only by privilege parties like the mass media,” he said.

“We need a system to reflect (minorities’) voices as well.”

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