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NHK upholds freedom of the press so long as it doesn’t annoy anyone with its content


It has been two months since the Tokyo High Court ruled in favor of the Violence Against Women in War Network in its lawsuit against NHK regarding coverage of a December 2000 international people’s tribunal, and while the verdict did not receive much press when it was first announced, it continues to be discussed on editorial pages because of the effect it may have on newsgathering activities.

Documentary Japan (DJ), a subsidiary of NHK, approached VAWW-Net in 2000 about the possibility of covering the tribunal, which the organization was sponsoring in Tokyo. The purpose of the tribunal — which included the participation of international legal experts and former sex slaves but was not legally binding — was to discuss Japan’s World War II sex slavery policy and decide, among other matters, whether or not Emperor Hirohito was ultimately responsible for the policy. VAWW-Net did not expect it to attract much coverage from the local press, so it was pleased with the possibility that a documentary about the proceedings would be aired by Japan’s public broadcaster.

However, knowing also that NHK was famous for shying away from controversial subjects, VAWW-Net wanted assurances and asked DJ to agree in writing to “the kind of content” that VAWW-Net felt needed to be broadcast. In return, VAWW-Net gave DJ exclusive rights for coverage of the tribunal.

The finished program did not meet VAWW-Net’s expectations. Between the time the tribunal took place and the broadcast of the documentary, then Deputy Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe questioned the impartiality of the program. In the end, the documentary did not contain any mention of the conviction of Hirohito for war crimes but did include a lengthy discussion by a famous rightwing scholar who made negative comments about the tribunal.

VAWW-Net sued, saying that NHK and two subsidiaries had violated VAWW-Net’s “right of expectation” (kitaiken) and had not fulfilled their “obligation to explain” (setsumei gimu) when they made changes to the program without first disclosing these changes to VAWW-Net, who would have surely withdrawn its support had they known about them. In March 2004, the Tokyo District Court found only DJ guilty, and VAWW-Net appealed.

The January ruling by the high court is seen as a vindication for VAWW-Net and a rebuke to NHK, though not necessarily a criticism of the government. Some newspapers hailed the ruling as just but also indicated anxiety over what sort of precedent it set.

In its defense, NHK claimed “editing rights,” meaning its constitutionally guaranteed right to present information for broadcast in any way it deemed proper. Such rights, NHK claimed, trumped VAWW-Net’s right of expectation, and the most impressive aspect of the high court’s decision was its finding that NHK “abandoned” its editing rights by essentially not upholding them.

The problem that the media have with the ruling is that it seems to place a burden on journalists to meet the expectations of people they work with when producing stories or programs. Can, say, a politician sue if the story or program for which he gave an interview turns out differently from what he expected?

As Rumiko Nishino, a representative of VAWW-Net, wrote in the Feb. 9 issue of Shukan Kinyobi, it would be wrong to think that right of expectation can be applied universally, and she shows that the high court agreed that this case had “special circumstances” (tokudan no jijo). VAWW-Net expected certain aspects of the tribunal to be covered, and it based its participation on these expectations. NHK knew this and yet did not disclose changes that clearly contradicted the interests of VAWW-Net. As scholar Norma Field, writing in Japan Focus, pointed out, the court shot down NHK’s “clever” defense, which was predicated on press freedom, by saying that NHK forfeited its editing rights by making the kind of changes it made.

Field also points out that while VAWW-Net’s case against NHK is hardly an ideal way of getting its message out, it was, in the end, the only way. The media was never going to cover the tribunal in depth, and, in its final broadcast form, NHK’s documentary twisted the real meaning of the tribunal by leaving out so much. The lawsuit, therefore, became “one of the few avenues for gaining visibility” for the tribunal’s aim: to give former sex slaves their day in court.

The high court, however, did not feel there was enough evidence to support VAWW-Net’s additional claim that the government brought pressure on NHK to change the program. Nevertheless, in a piece that appeared two weeks ago in the Asahi Shimbun, former NHK producer Kantaro Kanazawa wrote that the promises made to VAWW-Net were made by the producers “in the field.” Such decisions should be made by executives within NHK, but they were probably too busy. The executives would have never agreed to the VAWW-Net proposal, says Kanazawa, because they know they would “receive criticism from outside,” presumably from people who don’t feel the tribunal’s activities should be aired, including ruling party politicians who have control over NHK’s budget.

The root of the matter is NHK’s squeamishness when it comes to subjects that may invite criticism from any quarter. Another recent Asahi article described an incident involving noted divorce consultant Hiromi Ikeuchi, who was scheduled to appear on an NHK radio program in December. Remarks she made on her online blog last fall were attacked, mainly by a man who threatened violence and who has since been arrested. NHK received faxes and e-mails from Ikeuchi’s critics protesting the appearance, which was subsequently canceled. Afterward, these critics posted messages on a BBS claiming victory. Obviously, NHK’s conception of freedom of speech has its limits.