The government approved a set of bills Friday for protecting personal information, paving the way for them to clear the current Diet session, after making major revisions to avert criticism that the legislation would restrict freedom of the press.

The government-sponsored bills are intended to protect personal information when a new resident-numbering system takes effect in August. Although the national registry network was introduced last August on a trial basis, some municipalities have refused to join it because legislation to protect personal information is not in place.

The computerized system, which assigns an 11-digit identification code to every Japanese resident, is to simplify municipal administrative work.

The original bills were scrapped in an extraordinary Diet session last year, amid an outcry from opposition parties and the media over the “basic principles” in the legislation, including requirements on all parties handling personal information to “clarify the purpose” of its use and to acquire information in “an appropriate manner.”

These requirements were seen as possibly being used to force journalists to disclose their news sources.

In the revised bills, the government dropped all such requirements. In addition, freelance journalists and writers were included as “media organizations” that are exempt from the clauses on obtaining and using personal information.

The revised bills also say Cabinet ministers must not use their authority to curtail freedom of the press, making the wording against government intervention clearer than the previous version, which said ministers must consider not exercising their authority.

To prevent government officials from illicitly leaking personal information to third parties, the new bills include a penalty clause calling for a prison term of up to two years or a 1 million yen fine.

Following the Cabinet’s approval, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi vowed to pass the legislation during the current Diet session.

“Yes, we would definitely like to pass it at the Diet,” Koizumi said when asked if the revised bills will win support from the public and opposition camp.

“We revised the bills in order to seek their acceptance after deliberating on them last year,” Koizumi said, referring to the ruling camp’s failed attempt to pass the bills in the last Diet session.

The ruling camp will set up a special Diet committee and start deliberations on the new bills in April.

It remains to be seen, however, how quickly the bills can be passed or even if they will be by the end of the Diet session in June. They still may face resistance from opposition parties, and debate on other major issues — including politicians’ money scandals and the Iraqi situation — could sidetrack them.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda stressed that quick passage is needed to strengthen measures to protect personal information before the resident-numbering system kicks off.

“We need to have a system in place (to protect privacy) in this age of information technology,” Fukuda told a news conference. “We need a law for that, and we want to see it passed in the current Diet session.”

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