The Tokyo High Court on Friday accepted an NHK reporter’s refusal to reveal a news source, saying news-gathering activities are a premise for the freedom of press that serves the public’s right to know, which is an indispensable component of a democratic society.

The three-judge high court panel’s decision rejected an appeal by a U.S. health food maker against an October ruling by the Niigata District Court that said it was justifiable that the NHK reporter refused to reveal a news source.

The court battle involves the taxation of the U.S. firm’s Japanese subsidiary in 1997 in connection with a suit filed in the U.S.

Presiding Judge Yomatsu Hinagata said, “Refusal to reveal a news source can be allowed unless there are particular circumstances” where if the reporter refuses to reveal the source, social and public benefits might be damaged to an equal or larger degree.

“It is difficult to say that the reporter’s refusal would inflict equal or larger damage on public interests” in this case, the high court said.

“It is not the news source that is being protected by the refusal, but the news organizations whose news-gathering activities would be seriously affected by a revelation,” it said.

The decision also said that a reporter’s refusal to disclose a source represents a “professional secret” accepted under the Code of Civil Procedure.

Friday’s high court decision is in sharp contrast with a Tuesday Tokyo District Court ruling that described a Yomiuri Shimbun reporter’s refusal to identify a news source as unjustifiable. The battle at the district court also involves the taxation of the U.S. firm’s Japanese subsidiary.

The Yomiuri Shimbun reporter refused to say whether the source was a Japanese government official.

In a statement, NHK welcomed the decision, saying recognized the mass media’s right to conduct news-gathering activities, which is vital to guarantee the public’s right to know.

NHK reported in October 1997 that the Japanese subsidiary of the U.S. firm had undeclared income totaling 7.7 billion yen and had remitted it to an affiliate of the parent firm in the U.S., according to the high court decision.

The report also said that Japan’s tax authorities and the U.S. Internal Revenue Service had imposed back taxes on the health food maker.

The health food maker filed a damages suit in the U.S., arguing that tax information it supplied to the U.S. government was conveyed to Japan’s tax authorities, then leaked to Japan’s mass media, which resulted in a series of defamatory media reports.

Under a bilateral legal cooperation agreement, U.S. judicial authorities commissioned Japanese courts to question as witnesses reporters from nine Japanese media organizations. Kyodo News is among the nine.

The NHK reporter, who was questioned at the Niigata District Court, refused to reveal the news source.

The food maker argued there is no need to protect the news source, who is suspected to have been a civil servant and disclosed information in violation of the confidentiality agreement of bureaucrats.

But the high court followed a Supreme Court precedent that a breach of confidentiality may not necessarily be termed illegal as a violation of the National Civil Service Law if news-gathering is done for the sole purpose of reporting and its methods are deemed appropriate.

Tokyo District Court Judge Ken Fujishita said that if the reporter had obtained information from a civil servant, the source may have to be disclosed. He said if the source was a National Tax Agency official, leaking information to the reporter would be illegal.

“Allowing a refusal to disclose a news source is equivalent to (the reporter) being indirectly involved in covering up a criminal act, and that is totally unacceptable,” Fujishita said.

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