The suspected involvement of three teenagers in the death of a 13-year-old boy in Kawasaki is fueling debate about the anonymity granted to minors in cases of this kind.
The suspects’ names, photos, addresses and even phone numbers are widely available online and the law is apparently unable to do anything about it.
While some people call it freedom of expression, what is happening on social media is tantamount to the lynching of the suspects and their families based on unconfirmed information, said Takehisa Hamada, an Osaka lawyer who specializes in the Juvenile Law.
Whereas major newspapers and broadcast networks have largely observed the law in withholding the suspects’ identities, users of social media have flouted it freely.
The two 17-year-olds and one 18-year-old are in police custody under suspicion of involvement in the deadly stabbing of Ryota Uemura, 13, whose unclothed body was found on a riverbank in Kawasaki two weekends ago.
Among the data circulated online is what purports to be a Facebook page run by a parent of one of the suspects. The page includes family photos and information such as details of family members.A tweet posted Saturday that contained the 18-year-old’s name, photo, phone number and address was forwarded by other Twitter users more than 1,500 times as of Monday. The teen reportedly confessed Monday to killing Uemura.
“Frankly speaking, I understand people’s hatred of the possible perpetrator of a reportedly heinous incident,” Hamada said.
But, he said, in a legal case “one must calmly consider the role of the law.”
Article 61 of the Juvenile Law prohibits publications such as newspapers from disclosing personal information that enables the identification of teenagers or young children under investigation. This is intended to give them space for a second chance in life.
However, the law does not prescribe penalties for those who break it.
Before the war, it was a different matter. The Juvenile Law used to threaten offenders with punishment, said Kenta Yamada, a professor of media studies and law at Senshu University in Tokyo.
The current Juvenile Law was amended from the prewar version to ensure freedom of expression as stipulated in the postwar Constitution, he said.
The Kawasaki case may bring the matter once more to Diet discussion.
Liberal Democratic Party policy chief Tomomi Inada told reporters Friday that given the shocking nature of the case, the ruling coalition will contemplate amending the law.
Some lawyer groups dedicated to protecting human rights are demanding penalties for those who break the anonymity rule, Yamada said.
He acknowledges that a penalty might deter violators of Article 61 but warns it might also “cut our own throats” by tightening the law and undermining freedom of expression.
Until the advent of Internet-based social media, the mass media “played a role in keeping a balance” through observing the law, Yamada said.
“Now, as social media emerges and the power of mass media declines, the order has been broken” as individuals have a tendency to spread unconfirmed information based on their own judgment, he said.
Hamada, the Osaka lawyer, echoed Yamada’s view but warned that a tougher law would not in itself fix the problem of juvenile crime: What that needs, he said, is thorough analysis of the factors that drive teens to crime, and to continue educational and humanitarian support for juveniles, especially those in particularly tough situations.
“Every time a shocking juvenile crime takes place, there has always been debate over amending the Juvenile Law to make it tougher . . . but in the long term, the number of juvenile crimes is decreasing,” he said.
According to the National Police Agency, the number of juveniles arrested across Japan fell to 48,361 in 2014 from 123,715 in 2005.
The debate rose to the surface last month when the weekly Shukan Shincho published the name of a female 19-year-old Nagoya University student suspected of bludgeoning to death a 77-year-old woman. The magazine even printed photos of the girl.
In that case, too, social media had taken the first step: Armchair sleuths had found the suspect’s Twitter account and identified her.