More than 1,200 journalists, academics, authors, filmmakers and musicians, as well as another roughly 1,500 members of the public, have put their names to an online petition in support of freedom of expression amid concern about disturbing levels of self-censorship by media, lawmakers and society over the Islamic State hostage crisis and the government’s handling of it.

Drafted by a New York-based documentary filmmaker, the statement condemns the murders of captives Haruna Yukawa and Kenji Goto, but it says an atmosphere of self-restraint remains in the Diet, the mass media and Japanese society at large, and the government is not being held to account for its actions.

While not citing specific examples, the statement says anyone questioning the decisions Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his Cabinet took are told: ” ‘If you criticize the government now, you’re just aiding the terrorists,’ ‘If you think respect of human life is most important, you mustn’t do things that obstruct the government,’ and ‘At such extreme times, all Japanese should unite and support the government.’ “

Such thinking, the statement says, represents a dangerous form of self-restraint. It echoes that seen in Japan prior to World War II, when the military government adopted the concept of “yokusan taisei” (system of support) that aimed to eliminate sectarianism and sectionalism in politics to create a single, unified state.

“If you end up agreeing it’s necessary to exercise self-restraint when criticizing the government during ‘extreme times,’ then you’d also end up not being able to criticize the government in other ‘extreme times,’ including nuclear power accidents and natural disasters,” the statement declares.

Much of the criticism has taken place on social media and is directed against journalists and commentators who questioned Abe’s performance in the crisis. However, some politicians, even in the opposition, have gotten into trouble with their own party for expressing criticism.

Last month, as the fate of Goto was still unknown, Japanese Communist Party Lower House member Saori Ikeuchi sent a tweet criticizing the Abe government. That earned her a rebuke from JCP head Kazuo Shii, who said such criticism was inappropriate while the government was still trying to free Goto.

Ikeuchi later apologized and deleted the comment from her Twitter account.

“The atmosphere of self-censorship and criticism of the government’s critics is to be expected, given Abe’s political direction, which includes the creation of a National Security Council and the state secrets law. What’s happening is that the public space for discussion and criticism in Japan is shrinking,” says Sophia University professor Koichi Nakano, who signed the statement.

Conservative media generally supportive of Abe have also used the incident as a way to bash certain reporters and newspapers like the Asahi Shimbun for a lack of “self-restraint.” A number of recent articles in the Yomiuri and Sankei newspapers have questioned the wisdom of sending reporters to Syria.

“I believe journalists never should be forced to refrain from reporting on what they find worthy to report. But it’s very risky for any media organization to disturb journalistic efforts by any other journalist to let readers know what is happening,” said Keiko Kanai, an associate professor of journalism at Kinki University in Osaka.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.