The Tokyo High Court on Monday expanded on a lower court ruling and ordered NHK and two production companies to pay damages to a women’s rights group for altering the content of a documentary on a mock tribunal over Japan’s wartime sexual slavery.
The lawsuit demanding 20 million yen was filed in July 2001 by the nongovernmental organization Violence Against Women in War-Network Japan (VAWW-NET Japan). It targets NHK, subsidiary NHK Enterprises 21 Inc. and subcontracted production firm Documentary Japan Inc.
The suit has been closely watched because the NGO claimed NHK censored or otherwise altered part of the 2001 program after being pressured by heavyweights in the Liberal Democratic Party, including Shinzo Abe, who is now prime minister, and Shoichi Nakagawa.
The defendants were ordered to pay 2 million yen.
The plaintiffs alleged that the TV program they cocreated was diluted by rightist and political pressure and modified significantly from what the NGO had earlier agreed to create.
At the center of the case is a segment that was deleted by NHK in which the tribunal found the late Emperor Hirohito guilty of allowing the institutionalization of sex slaves, known euphemistically as “comfort women.”
The focus of the high court ruling was on how to interpret NHK’s right to edit content in contrast with the responsibilities it holds toward collaborators, as well as whether it would find the alteration of the documentary a result of outside influence.
Although the court did not rule political censorship was involved, it acknowledged NHK altered the content of the mock tribunal after taking into account the remarks of politicians.
Presiding Judge Toshifumi Minami acknowledged the aired program differed from the original version because NHK “abused its right to edit their program” and breached its contract with the plaintiffs.
“The right of broadcasters to edit the content of their programs must be assured,” the judge said. But he added that VAWW-NET Japan was entitled to receive a prior explanation about the changes made to the program.
Rumiko Nishino, a corepresentative of VAWW-NET Japan who called the alteration “an insult to the (sex slavery) victims” and a “violation of freedom of speech,” praised the judgment, calling it a “complete triumph for the plaintiffs.”
“If such editing was to be judged as freedom of editing by the media, then any political censorship in the future would be approved,” she said.
Lawyers for the plaintiffs added that the verdict “basically ordered NHK to be self-reliant as a broadcaster” and not be intimidated by political pressure.
According to the suit, VAWW-NET Japan agreed to cooperate with NHK and the two firms in October 2000 to produce the documentary of the mock tribunal.
The program was created as part of a series on Japan’s wartime responsibilities and included testimony by surviving sex slaves as well as soldiers who admitted raping the comfort women.
The tribunal found Emperor Hirohito, known posthumously as Emperor Showa, guilty of crimes against humanity.
But prior to its January 2001 airing, the 44-minute program was shortened to 40 minutes after segments of the verdict and interview footage was edited out.
The plaintiffs claimed it was a result of media interference by LDP politicians, including then Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Abe and current LDP policy chief Nakagawa. Both were heading the LDP’s panel on history education.
The Tokyo District Court in 2004 ordered Documentary Japan to pay 1 million yen in damages to the Tokyo-based women’s rights group, claiming it “gave wrong expectations about the program to the NGO, when the subcontractor had no authority to determine its content.” The plaintiffs then appealed and demanded 40 million yen.
But the lower court did not find NHK or NHK Enterprises 21 guilty on grounds that as broadcasters, they were guaranteed the freedom to revise its programs.
The plaintiffs had claimed that if the program was altered because of outside pressure and NHK was not to be held responsible, it would make it taboo even to discuss sex slavery issues and would be tantamount to government control over the media.
The suit took an unexpected turn in January 2005 when one of NHK’s chief producers involved in producing the altered program revealed that editing was “made against the backdrop of political pressure.”
“It is obvious that it was altered to gain consent from Mr. Abe and Mr. Nakagawa,” the producer said at a news conference.
Despite the whistle-blower’s claim, however, NHK and the two politicians denied any censorship was involved.