Newspaper editors, publishers, broadcasters and freelance journalists across the country are vehemently protesting that two bills now in the Diet would gravely undermine freedom of the press.

One is aimed at protecting personal data from leaks and information misuse, while the other is aimed at protecting individuals from human rights violations, including aggressive tactics by journalists, such as incessant telephone calls and staking out story targets.

Media organizations suspect, however, that the bills are also designed to protect politicians and high-ranking government officials from negative coverage.

One is a privacy bill that would essentially compel anyone dealing with personal information to collect the information legitimately; keep it accurate and updated; disclose it at the request of parties to which it pertains; clarify the purpose of its use; and refrain from leaking it to outsiders.

Meanwhile, the human rights bill would create an independent public organization with the authority to act on complaints of human rights infringements.

Originally, neither bill was perceived as an attempt to regulate journalistic activities. Indeed, mainstream journalists had consistently called for measures to protect individual rights, particularly from abuse of power by the government.

The privacy bill was initially proposed as a safeguard against the misuse of a 1999 amendment to legislation governing residential registration. Under this amendment, the national government controls computerized personal data on each resident of Japan.

The emphasis of the privacy and human rights bills, however, was later shifted toward regulation of the media.

Critics have attributed this primarily to the handiwork of politicians seeking to censor muckraking journalists and address public distrust of the media.

But media organizations — including the Japan Newspapers Publishers and Editors Association, of which The Japan Times is a member — oppose the bill. They claim it targets all parties which hold personal information, including media bodies and even individual writers.

During a recent Tokyo symposium on the issue, Yutaka Asahina, deputy managing editor of the Mainichi Shimbun, illustrated the case against the bills by citing reports of a dubious golf club membership acquisition involving a politician.

He said the proposed legislation would block reports of this kind, as the potential news sources holding the membership list details would hesitate to share them for fear of violating the law.

Although reporters are exempt from punishment under the bill, the legislation is effective enough to provoke potential sources to shy away from cooperating, he said.

The government’s response is that the legislation is not aimed at hampering reporting activities because its basic principle is merely that journalists should deal with such information “appropriately.”

Akihiko Kumashiro, parliamentary vice minister for administrative reform, laughed off the media’s concerns, saying that the Constitution fully guarantees freedom of expression.

Kumashiro added that he does not expect journalists to shy away from reporting stories they believe will serve the public interest.

Critics claim, however, that the legislation would directly threaten news organizations if it were used as a tool to sue them, especially with Japanese courts treating the media with increasing severity.

In March 2001, the Tokyo District Court ordered Shogakukan Inc. to pay Yomiuri Giants baseball player Kazuhiro Kiyohara some 10 million yen, ruling that an inaccurate piece in the weekly Shukan Post had damaged the slugger’s reputation.

The ruling typified a recent trend toward spiraling libel suit awards. Payouts of this kind had previously ranged from several hundred thousand yen to a few million at the most.

In addition, Japan’s libel precedents dictate that defendants must present evidence to support the credibility of a given report.

In the United States, public figures such as politicians and government officials must prove that a media body operated with “actual malice” or intended to defame them via false or unconfirmed information.

The shift in regulatory targets — from government to private parties — was much clearer in the process of drafting the human rights protection bill.

The proposal to establish an independent body to oversee human rights abuses is based on a 1998 recommendation to Japan by the United Nations Human Rights Committee, which pays particular attention to detention facilities such as prisons and immigration centers.

Under the proposed legislation, however, the watchdog would become an affiliate of the Justice Ministry.

Lawyers who have dealt with the ministry’s abuse of authority say a body of this kind could not operate independently from government control.

Meanwhile, the bill is designed to address “human rights violations by the media” by equipping the body with legal power for arbitration.

Crime victims, family members of crime victims and crime suspects would accordingly be able to file complaints when they feel that “excessive reporting activity” is considerably disrupting their daily lives.

Journalists’ organizations are also concerned that the legislation would empower public figures suspected of criminal acts to regulate “excessive” reporting about them.

The government argues that the bill is only aimed at empowering individuals faced with a withering media onslaught.

This claim is not without justification.

The media suffered a barrage of criticism in the wake of the 1994 sarin attack in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture, carried out by Aum Shinrikyo.

A local company employee — who was later exonerated — was identified as the prime suspect in the case, and was subjected to some slanderous accusations.

Crime victims can also be targeted by some curious media coverage. A weekly magazine once ran a private nude photograph of a woman who was murdered in Tokyo.

The neighbors of anyone under media scrutiny can also have their lives disrupted by waves of reporters in their neighborhood.

Fearing legal reprisals, newspapers and broadcasters have started to improve the way they deal with complaints in recent years.

Representing the newspapers association, Asahina stressed the importance of voluntary efforts, as opposed to government regulation.

“Who would be happy if these laws were made?” he asked.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.