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Yasunori Okadome last month suspended publication of his profitable monthly gossip magazine Uwasa-no-shinso (The Truth Behind Rumors), due to fears that a lawsuit could put him out of business for good.

Okadome, 56, said the soaring compensation payouts awarded by courts in privacy- or defamation-related damages suits in recent years have prompted him to step away from the 25-year-old scandal rag, which targeted politicians, elite bureaucrats and celebrities, and had a circulation of 65,000.

He also cited the recent enactment of a privacy-protection law, which he said is a veiled government attempt to suppress magazine journalism.

He said he was shocked by the Tokyo District Court’s temporary injunction issued March 16 to ban sales of the March 25 edition of the popular weekly newsmagazine Shukan Bunshun because of an article it carried on former Foreign Minister Makiko Tanaka’s daughter’s divorce was deemed an invasion of privacy.

“The unprecedented move, which can cause huge losses to a magazine’s operation and damage its social reputation, means that powerful people have another mighty tool to quiet magazines, which have played important roles in reporting on scandals involving people in power,” he told The Japan Times.

“People in the media industry told me that I halted my magazine at the right time,” he said. “Unfortunately, they were right.”

Debate over privacy vs. freedom of the press has become a hot issue in recent years.

The debate intensified when the presales ban was slapped on Shukan Bunshun on grounds that one of its featured articles violated the privacy of a daughter of the House of Representatives member.

The sales ban was overturned earlier this week by the Tokyo High Court, which judged that freedom of press, as protected under the Constitution, must be upheld.

The court also agreed with the lower court, however, in ruling that the article violates the privacy of Tanaka’s daughter, and said the article cannot be considered as serving the public interest.

People in the media industry and legal experts have said that the ruling represents authorities’ latest attempt to muzzle the media. Critics who have supported victims of hostile media reporting meanwhile say the media have brought it on themselves.

A Liberal Democratic Party panel dealing with the issue of privacy vs. media freedom released a report in 1999 urging courts to increase the amount of compensation that media firms must pay for any damage caused by their reports.

The report says the then standard 1 million yen for libel suits is too small to discourage the media from defaming individuals to sell publications.

Several former and serving judges have since published reports in legal journals saying the amount of damages must be raised to about 5 million yen.

In 2001, a Tokyo District Court study panel of five judges released a report saying compensation for defaming a publicly known figure should be set between 4 million yen and 5 million yen. The panel said the amount should be set in accordance with the public status of the targeted person, truthfulness of the reporting and other factors.

A recent survey by the National Council to Promote Ethics of Mass Media found that newspapers, broadcasters and magazine publishers lost 40 privacy- or defamation-related damages suits between September 2002 and last August. The joint council, which represents 10 media associations, discusses media ethics.

In 15 of those cases, media firms were ordered to pay compensation exceeding 3 million yen, including seven in which the awarded damages topped 5 million yen.

A survey by the Japan Newspaper Publishers’ and Editors’ Association found that between last August and February, the media, mainly news magazines, lost 19 damages suits, including 10 in which the amount of compensation exceeded 3 million yen.

In October, the Tokyo High Court ordered Shinchosha Co. to pay 19.8 million yen in damages — the highest amount ever awarded in a libel suit in Japan — to the president of a hospital in Kumamoto Prefecture over a series of articles in its now-defunct weekly magazine Focus that had intimated that the president killed his wife and three others to obtain insurance money.

Kiyoshi Hayakawa, chief editor of the weekly Shukan Shincho, another magazine published by Shinchosha, said the trend in court decisions reflects politicians’ desire to regulate reporting by news magazines.

He said lawmakers also enacted a law to protect privacy last year that will regulate organizations that handle personal information.

The controversial legislation was passed after the government revised its wording so that newspapers, TV broadcasters, academics and religious and political groups would be exempt — but not magazine publishers.

“We may have engaged in excessive reporting, but we have also lent our ears to public criticism,” Hayakawa said. “We cannot agree with the court’s current stance on the privacy vs. media freedom issue.”

Shukan Shincho was embroiled in another controversy over privacy vs. media freedom. The same attorney representing Tanaka’s daughter has threatened to seek a court injunction banning publication of the April 1 edition of the magazine, which carried an article on one of the sons of baseball legend Shigeo Nagashima.

The reason behind the injunction against Shukan Bunshun was that Tanaka’s daughter is a private figure whose private life is not a matter of public interest, despite being the offspring of a well-known politician.

But lawyer Yoichi Kitamura, who represents Bungeishunju Ltd., publisher of Shukan Bunshun, said the nation’s courts tend to protect public figures more than private citizens, setting higher libel-compensation standards for those who are publicly known.

Kitamura, who has represented victims of aggressive media reporting, claimed that in the United States, public figures bear the burden of proving whether a media allegation against them is false or serves the public interest.

In Japan, it is the media’s responsibility to prove the two points, which are usually the focal issues in damages suits, he said.

Okadome of Uwasa-no-shinso has been sued by politicians, celebrities and others he says were public figures in nearly 40 cases. He said he lost a number of cases because he refused to identify his news sources.

“We draw a strict line between public figures and private people, but that does not matter when it comes to trials,” he said.

Okadome said it should be the duty of people in positions of power to clear themselves of damaging allegations.

“But it is always us who must prove everything, and must naturally lose,” he said.

Okadome said that news magazines, risking libel suits, have played leading roles in uncovering wrongdoing involving public figures.

“Scandal reporting that forced lawmakers out of office in the past years all started with news magazines, whereas newspapers waited until investigative authorities took action,” Okadome said.

Kenichi Asano, professor of Doshisha University in Kyoto and one of the nation’s leading media critics, hailed the court injunction against Shukan Bunshun, saying it is the media’s fault that there is no system of hearing complaints from people before publishing or broadcasting information that may violate their privacy.

He said: “It cannot be denied that what has allowed the government to tighten control over the media is public sentiment that the media has done too much harm to ordinary people. The reason that the authorities can treat the media like this is that the media’s own behavior has failed to win public support.”

Asano said the latest dispute is a bitter lesson for the media.

“The definition of privacy or information that is fit to be published should be created not by courts but by public consensus, and the media should make further efforts to listen to the public on the matter,” he said.

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