Earlier this summer, when an American serviceman was accused of raping a Japanese woman on Okinawa, the U.S. military authorities were put in a difficult position.

Before they agreed to hand the suspect over to local police they asked that certain conditions be met, including an interpreter chosen by the U.S. side and the presence of the suspect’s lawyer during all interrogation sessions. Under considerable political pressure, the U.S. side eventually withdrew these conditions and transferred the soldier to the custody of the Okinawan police.

The conclusion to the five-day standoff was generally seen as a victory for Japan, but according to Seijo Fujiwara, vice-chairman of the Japan Federation of Bar Associations, the Japanese people should not feel smug about the outcome. Writing on the editorial page of the Asahi Shimbun last month, Fujiwara said that the U.S. demands “were not unreasonable,” and detailed how Japan’s criminal investigation procedures “are not in line with international standards.”

The ultimate goal of an investigation in Japan is to elicit a confession, which is not only admissible as primary evidence, but is also considered the first step in the criminal’s rehabilitation. The United Nations Human Rights Commission has repeatedly cited Japan for its failure to safeguard suspects’ rights, especially with regard to interrogations.

The government always deflects these accusations with weak arguments. For example, defense lawyers are not allowed to be present during interrogations because they might leak compromising information. What’s more, the media rarely questions police procedures.

Last Sunday, however, Asahi TV’s documentary news show, “Scoop 21,” looked at the case of Rosal Manalili, a 29-year-old Filipina who is currently serving an eight-year sentence for allegedly killing her Japanese boyfriend in 1997. At the start of the program, the host made the startling admission that “the Japanese media has purposely ignored” this case.

The program went on to show that the main evidence against Manalili was a confession that she has since retracted and which was obviously made under duress. In addition, evidence supporting Manalili’s alibi was “lost” by the coroner, and the particulars that Manalili gave in her confession do not match the forensic evidence recorded at the crime scene. But what was most significant about the program was the reporters’ acknowledgment that the authorities had denied Manalili her right to due process. They continually pointed out in plain language the rights of a person accused of a crime and then showed how the police, the prosecutor and even the judge knowingly ignored these rights. Most Japanese citizens, the program implied, are unaware that suspects have any rights at all.

Apparently a freelance journalist brought the story to “Scoop 21,” but most of the information presented on the program was likely provided by Manalili’s defense team, one of whom appeared periodically throughout the program. Manalili and her lawyers are now in the midst of an appeal.

It is not unusual for defense lawyers to use the media when they believe a miscarriage of justice has occurred. If the story is dramatic, as it is in Manalili’s case, reporters will be more than happy to relay it to the public.

But just as the police follow legal procedures only when it suits them, the media can be selective in deciding whether or not a miscarriage of justice bears reporting. It’s especially tricky when the media was a party to the injustice in the first place.

The defense team for Daisuke Mori, the nurse who was arrested last January for allegedly murdering a patient at a private hospital in Sendai, recently published Mori’s jail diary. Though poorly written and, at times, incomprehensible, the diary reveals much the same kind of information that the “Scoop 21” report revealed about police interrogations.

Mori was browbeaten for weeks on end to confess his alleged crime, and he eventually did. Like Manalili, he later retracted the confession, and since then has steadfastly maintained that he is innocent.

Mori is at a disadvantage, however, since the media effectively tried and convicted him last spring, not so much with evidence as with things like TV interviews of psychologists who explained his behavior.

According to his lawyers, there is no evidence against Mori except the retracted confession. In fact, the lawyers claim that there is no evidence of a murder having been committed. The patient who died may simply have died from other causes, but because of the sensational nature of the prosecutor’s charge — that Mori gave the patient a lethal dose of a drug so that he could practice life-saving measures — and the current well-publicized spate of malpractice incidents, the media embraced the story and enhanced it.

It’s obvious that Mori’s defense team wants to bring its case to the public, since it knows from experience that the justice system doesn’t always work the way it’s supposed to.

But the media doesn’t always work the way it’s supposed to, either. Mori’s trial began July 11, and since then there hasn’t been a peep about it in the press.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
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