Leaked video raises secrecy-law questions

by and

It was Wednesday when a coast guard officer dropped a bombshell on his skipper and sparked a national sensation.

The 43-year-old chief navigator of the patrol ship Uranami, stationed in Kobe, reportedly admitted he posted video clips on the Internet showing a Chinese trawler ramming Japanese patrol craft off the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, shaking the Cabinet to the core.

The leak of the videos of the Sept. 7 collisions has raised two critical questions for the government and investigators: should he be punished for leaking what the government believes is ” secret,” and how can the government properly manage information in the age of the Internet?

“The government must improve its management of confidential information. But it also needs to realize it’s very hard to prevent an insider who’s determined to leak information,” said Tetsukazu Okamoto, a professor at Kansai University familiar with government information management.

In the digital age, anyone can disclose information and circulate it around the world in an instant, he noted.

In the past, insider information would have been leaked to traditional media, including TV and newspapers. But the Senkaku leak shows that notion is obsolete, Okamoto said.

He is concerned that the incident damaged civil servants’ sense of discipline regarding confidentiality because many in the public praised the coast guardsman as an information-disclosure hero, because the video paints a different picture than what Beijing claimed occurred in its state-controlled media reports. China has insisted the Japanese ships rammed the Chinese fishing boat, but the footage indicates otherwise.

Indeed, the Japan Coast Guard has reportedly received hundreds of phone calls praising the guardsman and saying he shouldn’t be punished. In an online poll by Yahoo Japan, 66 percent of the respondents as of Friday welcomed the leak, and 22 percent said it was inevitable.

Among those who support the officer is political commentator Hisayuki Miyake, who thinks the footage should have been shown to the public from the start.

“The Kan administration shouldn’t have kept it under wraps. It has nothing to do with national interests,” he said.

The government has refused to disclose the video out of fear it could cause further diplomatic friction with China.

“The government has aggravated the situation by concealing the video,” said Toshiaki Kamei, chairman of Risk Management Society, a group of academics. “It’s ignoring the people’s right to know.”

Meanwhile, police, after taking the officer into voluntary custody, have been questioning him, suspecting he violated the National Public Service Law, which obliges government workers not to leak “secrets” learned through their jobs.

But experts question whether the officer actually breached confidentiality rules, saying the public already had been informed about at least some of the contents.

“Looking at the case of the Senkaku video from the perspective of laws regarding freedom of information, I doubt it is information that would be categorized by the public service law as confidential,” said Masao Horibe, an expert on information law and a professor emeritus at Hitotsubashi University.

In this regard, Horibe said, he doubts if the officer should be charged for breaching confidentiality.

“It seems to me it is very difficult to accuse the officer of violating the National Civil Service Law,” he said. However, “one thing for sure is that he violated coast guard regulations because the Japan Coast Guard does not allow its staff to upload video like this.”

Under the 2001 Freedom of Information Law, the government is obliged to disclose all information except that pertaining to private matters, corporate secrets, national security, diplomatic negotiations or criminal investigations.

Besides, the public already knew the video existed and to a certain degree its contents, Horibe argued.

According to precedents set by the Supreme Court, information is regarded as secret when it is not known yet by the public — and there is some value in keeping it that way.

On Nov. 1, following strident requests from the opposition camp, some 30 Lower and Upper House budget committee members were shown seven minutes of the footage.

“Select politicians viewed the video, and they spoke to the media, giving details of what they saw. So we can say the public already knew the content of the information, which contradicts the condition of secrecy,” Horibe said.

Okamoto of Kansai University also argued that the video could be categorized as controlled — but unclassified — information because it was already partially shared with the Diet members.

“I assume (the coast guard) regarded the footage as important, but not classified,” he said.

Meanwhile, Ryuichi Takei, former coast guard vice commandant for operations, said the navigator, as a coast guardsman, should not have leaked the video.

“It’s a pity (the video) was released in an inappropriate way,” said Takei, who now serves as an adviser to the Tokyo Bay Association for Marine Safety.

“I know that coast guard officers all wonder why the video can’t be disclosed when they did nothing wrong. But still, revealing it in such a way isn’t right, and it seems (the officer) didn’t think of the impact on society.”

At the same time, Takei said he understands the frustration shared by coast guard personnel.

“I think they were all disappointed when the government decided not to make the video public,” he said.

“China keeps saying things opposite to what actually happened, but we have proof. Video footage can tell the truth 100 times more than discussions.”

Takei said it is short-sighted to think such frustration led the officer to leak the video, but he said coast guardsmen who face danger at sea are more discontented with the government than those back at headquarters in Tokyo.

“(The feelings) are different with those who face the risk of falling overboard or being crushed by ships every day,” he said.

But Takei stressed that the officer’s action has led to a loss of public trust in civil servants.