The Supreme Court on Thursday struck down a high court’s rejection of a suit filed by Saitama Prefecture farmers seeking damages from TV Asahi Corp. for a report on vegetable dioxin contamination.

The Supreme Court sent the case back to the Tokyo High Court. The farmers are seeking a combined 26 million yen in compensation.

Presiding Justice Kazuko Yokoo of the top court said there was not enough evidence to show that the TV Asahi report was basically correct, as the high court had ruled.

In February 1999, TV Asahi said in its popular “News Station” program that up to 3.8 picograms of dioxin per gram were detected in leafy vegetables, including spinach, grown in Tokorozawa, Saitama Prefecture, an area with a heavy concentration of waste incinerators. A picogram is one-trillionth of a gram.

The report was later found to have been based on data a Tokyo-based private institute provided on dioxin found in green-tea leaves grown in the Tokorozawa area.

The report led major supermarkets to stop selling spinach and other vegetables grown in Tokorozawa, prompting 376 local farmers to file a damages suit against the broadcaster.

In the ruling, the top court determined that a decision on whether a TV news report has damaged the social reputation of people it covered should be made on how the report was accepted by viewers. A comprehensive judgment needs to be made in consideration of the impression made by the entire program that featured the contentious news item, it said.

The Saitama District Court and the Tokyo High Court had rejected the farmers’ suit, saying that although inappropriate expressions were used in the TV program, the main part of the report was true.

The courts ruled that the same amount of dioxin was later detected in Chinese cabbages grown in the area.

But 29 of the original plaintiffs appealed, saying the report on “the 3.8 picograms of dioxin in the leafy vegetables” had constituted the main part of the TV Asahi report, even though the figures had not been verified.

TV Asahi apologized for using misleading language in the program, but asked for the farmers’ appeal to be rejected, saying its report on high dioxin levels in the vegetables was true.

In the Thursday ruling, the Supreme Court said the key is whether leafy vegetables — as reported by TV Asahi — had been highly contaminated. An average viewer would not normally consider green-tea leaves to be included in “leafy vegetables,” the court said.

The dioxin contamination level in Tokorozawa produce other than green tea was 0.635-0.753 picograms, and therefore there is no evidence that the main part of the report was correct, it said.

Despite the top court’s rebuttal of TV Asahi’s claim on the key issue, Tokuji Izumi, one of the justices handling the case, presented a supplementary opinion to the ruling that noted the significance of the broadcaster’s report in the nation’s fight against dioxin contamination.

“If the farmers had suffered damage, the root cause is the proliferation of waste incineration facilities (that led to the dioxin contamination),” justice Izumi said in his opinion.

A series of TV Asahi reports on the dioxin and the slow response by government authorities is believed to have triggered or promoted subsequent legislative action, including limits on dioxin emissions and regulations on small incinerators, the justice noted.

It was five months after the TV Asahi report that the Diet enacted a new dioxin law.

TV Asahi released a statement expressing regret over the Supreme Court decision and said it would continue to state its case in the high court.

“The Supreme Court ruling carries the potential of restricting the people’s right to know and freedom of the press. Our reports were intended to urge the government administration to seriously address the issue, and we believe the reports had a certain positive impact, such as the enactment of the dioxin law,” the broadcaster said.

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