We are familiar with the carrot-and-stick approach in the West, but the phrase in Japan is “ame to muchi” — literally, the candy and the whip.

For journalists in Japan, there’s been a lot of whip in recent times and not much candy. How can we sweeten the deal?

Since the ruling coalition came to power, press freedom in the country is the only thing that has sunk faster than the value of the yen. Reporters Without Borders this year ranked Japan at a new low, dropping two places to 61 out of 180 countries and territories, just one below Korea and several notches below Croatia. It had ranked as high as 22 in 2012.

Reporters Without Borders didn’t shy away from the reasons behind Japan’s drop.

“The (state secrets law) the National Diet in Japan adopted in late 2013 … (reduces) government transparency on such key national issues as nuclear power and relations with the United States, now enshrined as taboos. Investigative journalism, public interest and the confidentiality of journalists’ sources are all being sacrificed by legislators bent on ensuring that their country’s image is spared embarrassing revelations.”

The domestic press hasn’t been controlled by the state to this extent since, arguably, 1937. It helps, or course, that the Islamic State group has recently carried out acts of terrorism on citizens of Japan. We live in a time when you can be labeled a “supporter of terrorism” for asking if Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s speech in Cairo on Jan. 11 — in which he pledged $200 million for “those countries contending with ISIL (another name used to describe the Islamic State group)” — may have prompted militants to target Japan. National Police Agency sources say Islamic State militants seemed to regard Japan as neutral in the conflict until Abe delivered his speech. Well, not anymore.

After the crisis died down, of course, news outlets and the opposition asked a few timid questions on the wisdom of that speech and why the government didn’t seem particularly interested in saving the Japanese hostages in Syria. Nikkan Gendai noted that Abe’s response after being informed of journalist Kenji Goto’s capture by Islamic State militants was a short vacation.

The government has said that it will conduct an internal review of their handling of the hostage crisis that will not be made public. On Feb. 10, Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida further kicked reporters in the teeth by saying at a news conference that all matters pertaining to the hostage crisis “could be a state secret.”

That’s a very subtle way of saying: “Keep asking questions and we can put you in jail.” A freelance journalist who attempted to go to Syria last month was even directly threatened with arrest. Not so subtle.

It appears the Abe administration has been focusing on the press and free speech from the very beginning, using intimidation, subversion — and some candy. The press is losing.

The Wall Street Journal and others noted last month that NHK chief Katsuto Momii said the state broadcaster would refrain from reporting on the issue of “comfort women” who were forced to provide sex for Japanese troops before and during World War II “until the government stance on the situation was clear.” One has to wonder what is unclear about the government’s stance.

Thus when the Asahi Shimbun — disliked by the Liberal Democratic Party and Abe — last year retracted a portion of its reporting on the comfort women issue in the 1980s and ’90s — right-wing groups seized the day and went on attack. The Asahi then also retracted important testimony on the disaster at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, perhaps out of fear.

Abe himself said the Asahi had brought shame upon Japan, practically declaring it an enemy of the state, and warned other newspapers to exercise care when reporting on the comfort women issue.

Still, when weekly magazine Shukan Bunshun revealed that Eriko Yamatani, chairwoman of the National Public Safety Commission that oversees the National Police Agency, was linked to a hate group known as Zaitokukai, she refused to renounce them.

“It’s inappropriate for government officials to criticize individual groups,” she said during a news conference at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan.

In other words, it’s alright to call the Asahi shameful because the government may disagree with its reporting but it’s not alright to call out racists. Similarly, Abe kept silent during the furor that arose last month after Ayako Sono — who was appointed by the prime minister to an education reform panel in 2013 — wrote a column in the Sankei Shimbun that advocated apartheid for Japan.

What can be done to encourage those who value free speech to keep on fighting for the good cause when those who speak out are attacked publicly?

The FCCJ has taken a small step forward by launching the first annual Freedom of the Press Awards, which will be announced on May 3 (World Press Freedom Day). There will be a specific award for investigative journalism, as well as an award for nonjournalists who have contributed to freedom of information. (Full disclosure: I’m ineligible to be nominated for any award because I’m on the organizing committee.)

The judging panel will include some heavyweight Japanese luminaries. The prizes will “confer due recognition upon journalists whose work represents the finest in defense of free speech, open society and democratic accountability.”

It will also offer an award for fallen heroes. The most likely candidate for the inaugural prize is Kenji Goto, the journalist who was beheaded by jihadis after Abe’s Cairo speech.

Ultimately, however, the awards should recognize those in the media doing their job — informing the public of things those in power do not want them to know. That, to me, definitely seems worth rewarding.

Dark Side of the Rising Sun is a monthly column that takes a behind-the-scenes look at news in Japan.

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.