OSAKA (Kyodo) The Osaka High Court has reversed a lower court decision that ordered TV journalist Soichiro Tahara to submit a recording of his interview with a senior Foreign Ministry official as evidence in a lawsuit over remarks he made on a talk show about two women abducted by North Korea.
According to the high court’s written decision, dated Thursday and delivered to both the plaintiffs and the defendant in the suit Friday, presiding Judge Kiyozo Yasuhara said journalists need to protect their sources to ensure freedom of news gathering.
If the sources are disclosed, journalists would be unable to gather information freely in the future, Yasuhara said, noting that the “social value of protecting news sources is important” and that Tahara’s submission of the recording was not indispensable.
The judge also said Tahara’s refusal to submit the tape corresponds to the situation under the Code of Civil Procedure when a witness refuses to testify to protect a professional secret.
The three-judge high court panel acted on an appeal filed by Tahara, 76, against the October 2010 decision by the Kobe District Court that ordered him to submit the tape.
The panel said Tahara’s refusal doesn’t run counter to the principle of faith and trust in a trial or damage the fairness of the trial, saying that a transcript of the interview can substitute for the recording.
The decision followed in the footsteps of the 2006 Supreme Court judgment that allowed a journalist to refuse to testify in court over a legal battle involving a news report on taxation on a Japan subsidiary of a U.S. firm.
The Osaka High Court said it is highly likely the recording in question contains information that would lead to the identification of the news source and that the official agreed to be interviewed on condition of anonymity, and that Tahara promised not to divulge the source’s identity.
During the trial at the Kobe District Court, Tahara submitted parts of the interview with the official in written form.
Tahara was sued in July 2009 for damages over mental distress claimed by the parents of Keiko Arimoto, one of the victims of North Korea’s abductions, following remarks Tahara made on a TV Asahi talk show that Arimoto and fellow abductee Megumi Yokota must be dead.
Tahara said on the air that the Foreign Ministry was aware of this, based on the interview he had with the senior official on Nov. 11, 2008.
Arimoto and Yokota are among 17 Japanese whom the government says were abducted to North Korea in the 1970s and 1980s. North Korea has admitted to abducting 13 Japanese, of whom five have returned to Japan.
Arimoto’s parents, Akihiro and Kayoko, argued during the trial that Tahara’s remarks caused them distress and they demanded ¥10 million in damages for their mental suffering.
The Kobe District Court ordered Tahara in October to submit the tape, saying he had given up the advantage of keeping his news source confidential by submitting part of the transcript earlier in 2010.
It also said the tape was needed to determine whether Tahara’s remarks were illegal, prompting him to appeal the decision on the grounds that the source could be identified by the voice on the tape.
Tahara argued submitting the tape would constitute a breach of confidentiality and would seriously affect freedom of the press.
On the high court decision, he said Friday the court handed down the “right decision concerning the protection of news sources and the freedom of expression,” while adding he is sorry his remarks hurt the feelings of the Arimotos.
The Kobe District Court has yet to decide on the plaintiffs’ damages claim.
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