Rise in defamation suits threaten media: journalists

by Masami Ito

The increasing number of lawsuits being filed in response to allegedly defamatory news articles is posing a threat to media organizations and freedom of expression by discouraging aggressive reporting, several journalists said at a recent symposium in Saitama.

The symposium, “Pride — Fighting Journalists,” was held last Friday by the Kanto regional branch of Shimbun Roren, a federation of newspaper employee unions.

Featured as panelists were three journalists — one freelance and two working for major newspapers — who have been targeted in massive lawsuits filed by major loan companies.

Katsuhisa Miyake, a freelance writer, is being sued by consumer loan giant Takefuji Corp. over a series of articles he wrote in 2003 for the Shukan Kinyobi weekly newsmagazine regarding what he described as the firm’s “cruel” tactics for collecting money from debtors.

Both the Tokyo District Court and the Tokyo High Court dismissed the lawsuit filed by Takefuji, which called on Miyake to pay 110 million yen in damages. Takefuji has appealed to the Supreme Court and the case is still ongoing.

“It is not a matter of winning or losing” for those who file such lawsuits, Miyake claimed.

“The significance lies in filing the lawsuit itself,” he said. “For (writers) who are being sued, I think the most frightening thing is the fear that they may have to give up (writing) stories that could result in a major damages suit.”

Freelance writer Kenichi Kita, coordinator of the symposium, said many publishers are telling their freelance writers to avoid risky articles.

Journalists are often discouraged from writing about suspected cases of wrongdoing unless it is certain investigators will take action, he noted.

In addition, those suing seem to be treating their targets differently, going after the weaker ones, including freelancers, with unmitigated aggression.

The Asahi Shimbun, a major daily, was also sued by Takefuji in 1996 after staff reporter Hideo Takaya wrote a series of articles on consumer loan companies, including Takefuji, for its weekly magazine Aera. In November that year, Takefuji demanded 100 million yen from the paper and an apology.

The Tokyo District Court dismissed the case in June 1997. Takefuji did not appeal.

This stands in stark contrast to the action the company took against freelance writer Miyake, Takaya said.

“The tactics used by companies like Takefuji (when fighting a legal battle against) major newspapers . . . are very different from those against freelancers like Miyake,” Takaya said. “Their first step is crushing freelance writers and (small) magazines like Shukan Kinyobi. But before we know it, major newspapers may be targeted in the future.”

Miyake also alleged that close ties between media organizations and their major advertisers can alter the depth and type of coverage a company receives in the press.

For example, he noted the way the administrative punishment imposed last December on the Kinshicho branch of Takefuji for violating the Moneylending Control Law was covered.

“(The major media) carried only small stories (on the case) even though it was a rare case in which a moneylender was being punished for a second time for the same offense,” Miyake said, pointing out that the media organizations in question continued to run large Takefuji ads on a daily basis.

Masashi Ito, a Mainichi Shimbun reporter, is being sued by SFCG, a Tokyo-based provider of corporate loans.

Last November, Ito wrote a series of articles alleging SFCG had duped customers into signing documents that gave SFCG authorization to seize their property, which later resulted in the debtors’ salaries being “seized.”

Within a month, SFCG filed a lawsuit against Ito as well as the Mainichi Shimbun, demanding a combined 350 million yen in damages.

Ito said he was not pressured by his superiors to avoid writing about the moneylender, but the story might have turned out differently had SFCG been a major advertiser in the Mainichi.

SFCG’s clients are mainly small and medium-size firms.

“In my case, the lawsuit was filed soon after my article was published,” Ito said. “It was very clear that (SFCG’s) aim was to prevent me from writing the stories.

“The company even said that my continuing to write the articles while being implicated in a legal battle was inexcusable.”

Members of the audience also complained about the rise in defamation suits and said lawyers and whistle-blowers are also being targeted.

One participant, lawyer Masaki Kito, said he is being sued for defamation of character by a self-enlightenment group called Home of Heart, which has demanded over 100 million yen in compensation.

According to Kito, the reason he has been sued is because of comments he made to TV broadcasters, newspapers, magazines and Internet sites regarding allegations of child abuse made by former members of the group. Home of Heart is also suing former members who spoke out against it.

“The right to know is based on the continued flow (of information) from the source to the media and to the general public,” Kito said. “If at any point (this flow) should be cut off, freedom of expression will cease to exist.”