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The European Union may have challenged one of Japan’s toughest barriers to free trade when it called for the abolition of the nation’s “kisha” press club system.

Recommending regulatory reforms, the EU claimed in an October report that journalists’ access to the nation’s authorities was being impeded by this system.

Kisha clubs are made up of reporters from major domestic media organizations.

Citing repeated complaints from foreign journalists, the EU criticized the system as an effective restraint on free trade in information. It said the system also encourages “overreliance on a single source of information” and thus diminishes the quality of information available to the wider public.

Controversy over the impact the press clubs have on journalism is nothing new.

And Nihon Shimbun Kyokai — the Japan Newspaper Publishers and Editors Association — seems reluctant to take steps to fundamentally change the system.

Firm defense of system

During an NSK board meeting in November, Tsuneo Watanabe, chairman of the association and president of the Yomiuri Shimbun, reportedly dismissed the EU charge, claiming the activities of foreign journalists are similarly restricted in any country.

Although the board agreed to hold a subcommittee meeting to discuss the EU’s complaints, Watanabe said the association should “take a firm stance” in confronting these claims, industry sources said.

Meanwhile, press liaison officials representing government bodies maintain that kisha clubs are voluntary, private organizations created by members of the press and that the government is not in a position to address any problems with them.

There may be as many as 1,500 press clubs across the nation that liaise between the news media, government institutions and major private-sector organizations.

In most cases, kisha club membership is limited to reporters from members of NSK, which consists of about 160 domestic newspapers, broadcasters and wire services, as well as employees of media firms that engage in similar activities.

Magazine and freelance reporters are not included.

Journalists who are not press club members, including foreign correspondents, are often barred from attending news conferences and briefings by officials.

The problem is largely attributable to the established practice in which news conferences conducted by government officials are organized — at least in terms of their format — by kisha clubs, not news sources.

“When I ask the public affairs officials of a ministry when the minister may have a news conference, they say it is hosted by the kisha club (so they cannot answer),” said Hans van der Lugt, a correspondent for the Netherlands-based newspaper NRC Handelsblad.

Ostensibly open

Responding to criticism of the exclusive nature of press clubs, NSK in 1997 revised its guidelines, stipulating that “kisha clubs should be as open as possible.”

The association counters accusations that the clubs are closed to the foreign media by stating that many have already approved the membership of foreign journalists.

Indeed, some foreign news organizations — including The Associated Press and Reuters — have been associate members of kisha clubs, including at the Foreign Ministry and the Finance Ministry, since the early 1990s.

Critics claim, however, that the fundamental problem is not whether the kisha clubs are open to the foreign media, but that participation in official news conferences is limited only to club members.

Most foreign newspapers and TV broadcasters have neither the personnel nor the need to belong to every major kisha club, said van der Lugt, who also chairs the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan.

“I don’t understand why I cannot attend public news conferences with my press card issued by the Foreign Ministry, and why (the government) holds public news conferences at such private venues,” he said.

In kisha club guidelines updated last January, NSK maintains that these news conferences should continue to be hosted by the press clubs, so government authorities cannot arbitrarily control reporting opportunities.

Japan’s first kisha club is believed to have been formed by journalists demanding permission to cover the first session of the Diet in 1890. Supporters of the system say kisha clubs are a tool that allows the media to demand explanations from government officials on a collective basis.

“There was a history of struggle by journalists demanding that government authorities hold news conferences,” an NSK official said.

The question of who organizes briefings came into sharp focus at the Nagano Prefectural Government in 2001.

Tanaka rocked the boat

Nagano Gov. Yasuo Tanaka, a longtime critic of the system, abolished the prefectural government kisha club and removed desks used by member media organizations from the press room.

In its place, he created a press center open to “anyone engaged with activities of expression” and decreed that news briefings would be hosted by the prefectural government, not by the kisha club.

Members of the club protested Tanaka’s decision, voicing concern that the new system would give the prefectural government greater control over information.

Since the new system was introduced, however, there have been no complaints that the prefecture has tried to manipulate press coverage to its advantage, a reporter at a leading local daily said.

Critics claim the kisha club system is increasingly being used by bureaucrats as a tool to control the press.

“It is a lie that the kisha club hosts news conferences,” van der Lugt said, noting that the news conference schedule at the Foreign Ministry press club is displayed under the heading Press Division at the Minister’s Secretariat.

Indeed, government officials often handpick journalists to cover public events by using the kisha club system.

The Foreign Ministry excluded reporters from Seikyo Shimbun, a daily published by the nation’s largest lay Buddhist organization, Soka Gakkai, from an international Afghan aid conference held in Tokyo in January.

Huge daily is shut out

According to the newspaper, whose circulation exceeds 5 million, officials within the ministry’s news media division refused to issue its reporters press passes.

Citing security concerns, the officials claimed the ministry was limiting participation to reporters from NSK member bodies or those belonging to the Diet kisha club.

Hiroshi Fujita, a journalism professor at Sophia University and former chief of the Kyodo News Washington Bureau, described the principle under which kisha clubs organize news conferences as a case of “tatemae” — official posturing.

“If kisha clubs actually host news conferences, managing editors of NSK member organizations have to bring the spirit of the guidelines home to each kisha club,” he said, referring to the association’s pledge that the clubs must be open organizations.

The participation of a broader range of journalists would make news conferences more active, Fujita said, noting how reporters in Japan at present tend to avoid asking public figures difficult questions during official briefings.

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