Under Abe’s reign, media self-censorship in Japan is rising

by Linda Sieg


Worries are growing in Japan about a trend toward media self-censorship as journalists and experts say news organizations are toning down criticism of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government for fear of sparking ire and losing access to sources.

No one is accusing Abe’s administration of overt meddling in specific news coverage, but media insiders and analysts say the government’s message is getting through.

“The media did, in recent years, play a much more positive role in . . . making people in power squirm. In the Abe era, they have begun pulling back,” said Jeffrey Kingston, director of Asian studies at Temple University’s Japan campus.

“There is a chilling atmosphere that encourages media organizations to exercise self-restraint.”

The conservative Abe, who returned to office in 2012, had fraught media ties during his first term, which ended when he quit in 2007 after a year of scandals and ill health.

This time, Abe wants to avoid the same mistake, experts say.

His appointee as chairman of NHK, Katsuto Momii, raised doubts about the respected broadcaster’s independence when he told his first news conference in early 2014: “We cannot say left when the government says right.”

Late last year, a ruling party aide to Abe wrote to television broadcasters ahead of an election demanding fair coverage. Many journalists took the letter as a signal they should dampen criticism or risk losing access to officials.

“There have been cases of media self-restraint in the past, but they usually involved the Imperial family, or, as after the 2011 tsunami and nuclear disaster, when media adopted a sober tone,” said Shinichi Hisadome, a foreign news editor at the Tokyo Shimbun, a feisty metropolitan daily regarded in media circles as less submissive than national media.

“I think this is the first time that criticism of the government itself has been so restrained,” Hisadome said.

Experts say the result is a far friendlier tone toward the government even among media that previously were critical.

“Criticism of the government has dropped sharply,” said Kozo Nagata, a former NHK producer and now a professor of media studies at Musashi University.

In one example of the climate, a producer of TV Asahi’s “Hodo Station,” a nightly news show known for not pulling punches, will be shifted to a new post from April because she would not heed internal warnings not to criticize Abe’s government, two sources said.

An outspoken guest commentator will also be replaced, the sources said. Former trade ministry official Shigeaki Koga, who sparked a flap last month by criticizing Abe over a hostage crisis that ended with the killing of two Japanese captives by Islamic State militants, told Reuters he had been told he would not be asked to appear as a guest on the show after March.

TV Asahi told Reuters nothing had been decided regarding personnel or guest commentators.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters on Tuesday the government fully respected press freedom. Referring to criticism of Abe on television over the hostage crisis that he said misrepresented facts, he added: “Seeing that, don’t you think freedom truly is guaranteed in Japan?”

Journalists and experts, though, say the trend toward self-censorship has worsened since the hostage crisis. Nearly 3,000 people, including journalists and scholars, signed a statement this month raising concern about freedom of expression.

“We’ve reached the stage where even without the government doing anything, mass media produce articles that cozy up to authorities or refrain from criticism,” Koga said.

“The public is not getting the right information to make decisions.”

  • Hendrix

    Enjoy it while you can because its going to get worse, Japan is becoming more Autocratic by the day… back to the 1930s for Japan dark times ahead.

    • Jonathan Fields

      This. Japan is headed down a dangerous path.

      • Eagle

        The question is whether Japan has already reached the point of no return or can dream a bit longer.

  • So Abe’s association with anti-social forces can be covered up? Isn’t it time to go back and pull some history on the scandals that pushed him out of office in the first place?

  • timefox

    Japanese media broadcast terrorist’s advertising video just as it is. It should be regulated more.

  • yulia okost

    Abe’s approval rating keeps high because the media is too favourable to PM?
    don’t make me laugh,Linda Sieg.
    opposite. japanese media is crazily critical of PM. this author is Abe hater so she doesn’t satisfied with the media unless they always bash him. yeah, TV strangely bashed PM much more than the terrorists who killed the hostages.
    some commentators is leaving TV? that’s because many viewers think the program is too biased against Abe. don’t tell a lie.

  • tisho

    What i don’t understand is why isn’t the foreign media talking about this ? I feel like Japan is immune to criticism. When some bozo from a rural village in China does something, it’s instantly on the first page of CNN with all bold capital letters. When the advisor of Abe calls for racial segregation and apartheid state, no foreign media even mentions it. When the Japanese media openly says we will go right because that’s what our leader wants, no foreign media even mentions it, they only talk about China. When the UN issues yet another human right report for Japan, no foreign media talks about it, not even mentions it. What the hell is happening ? Why is nobody talking about Japan ? I feel like they can do a massacre of foreigners on the streets and the foreign media wouldn’t even write a sentence about it. What a twisted world we’re living in. It’s like a movie in which the bad guy wins at the end and takes the girl, and the glory, and the credit for everything while the good guy is dies unknown.

    • Scott Reynolds

      Umm, the article you are commenting on is a Reuters wire story. This is the foreign media. And just like all too many foreign media stories about Japan it trots out old news that has already been reported elsewhere, simplifies and exaggerates, and basically conveys a distorted view of the actual situation.

    • Hendrix

      Japan often gets a free pass, just like Israel, you cant critisise them in the mass media anyway, actually Japan gets rewarded for their behaviour such as getting the Olympics in 2020.. the fact that japan has no anti discrimination laws or hate speech laws they get a free pass…. disgusting really

      • the fact that japan has no … hate speech laws

        You mean like the US?

  • It’s possibly true. I don’t watch the news at all. Here or elsewhere. But for what it’s worth and it’s probably worth a lot if you have money: the more restricted the media the more this means that Japan’s “Wall Street” will do better. If all this silence continues it it is going to be filled with the wonders of the economics. It’s something a paradox though since if there is at least some serious questioning of the lack of questioning there is still a little ways to go. But, of course, one can only question the lack of questions for so long…and this is when “everyone” wins, but so to the everything is lost.

  • Nelson

    LOL, if the media is upset because they can’t support terrorists to criticize PM Abe then I think the media is just being lazy.

    Criticize Abe and criticize the terrorists both when they do wrong things.

    Although personally I don’t really understand how you criticize Abe for giving humanitarian aid to the people suffering in the Middle East.

    Why the media in Japan doesn’t attack Abe for not raising the wages of the ordinary people and ending deflation I don’t know. (Maybe the media doesn’t care about the poor either…)

  • Eagle

    Abe should know his lords, his controllers will fail him as soon as he financially totally looted Japan and no more money to loot will be left. Then he will remain unprotected. It’s just a matter of time. He’s disposable.

  • 1. NHK ≠ all Japanese media. NHK may not be making waves when it comes to talking about Abe, but I don’t see the rest of the broadcast media pulling their punches. Which brings us to…

    2. Kingston is obviously out of his depth. Unless his “proof” that Japanese media organizations are “exercising self restraint” is that they are not calling him for soundbites. And they aren’t. There are plenty of other foreign university professors out there on Japanese news shows opining about Japan, but I have never, ever seen Kingston among them. Which is pretty surprising considering how much the Japanese love to have foreign talking heads commenting about them, and how much Kingston loves to comment – perhaps he is only capable of doing so in English over a pint at The Hub?

  • Dan

    Which is worse the politicians controlling the media or the media controlling the politicians? In the UK politicians have to kowtow to Murdoch’s henchmen and in the end sensationalist journalism ie The Daily Mail controls the country.

    It’s a lose lose situation.