In February, Reporters Without Borders published its annual list of countries ranked in terms of press freedom. Japan came in at No. 61, down two places from the previous year and lower than Taiwan (51) and South Korea (60). The reason for the decline was the state secrets act, which came into force last December and criminalizes the disclosure of classified information, whether by parties inside or outside the government.

Japan had already been falling on the list. In 2010 it was No. 11. The sudden “deterioration in trust,” according to Kobe College professor Tatsuru Uchida, writing in Aera, was brought on by the “ambiguous” coverage of the March 2011 nuclear disaster and subsequent cleanup efforts. Uchida said the Japanese press did not sufficiently investigate the actions of Tokyo Electric Power Co. and the government, and as a result Reporters Without Borders assumed the country’s media was under their sway.

It’s easy to accept these assertions if you closely follow Japanese media, but it’s difficult to find clear examples of press organs bowing to pressure from above, so when an example seems to present itself, it’s news. Last weekend, the media was buzzing over the dustup on TV Asahi’s “Hodo Station” between commentator Shigeaki Koga and anchor Ichiro Furutachi.

Koga is the former Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry official who quit some years ago and has since made a living criticizing government policy. For a while he has been an occasional guest pundit on “Hodo Station,” which prides itself on more in-depth coverage than you get from other news shows. The producers appreciate Koga’s willingness to speak his mind, though their superiors at TV Asahi reportedly felt otherwise.

Koga has explained publicly, through social media and other means, that he was told in January he would no longer appear on “Hodo Station” after April due to some of his on-air comments about the government’s handling of the hostage crisis, which ended with the death of two Japanese nationals at the hands of the Islamic State group. During a press conference at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan on Feb. 25 he said that TV Asahi executives are “trying to curry favor with the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe,” and so they forced the producer of “Hodo Station” to let him go.

Though it was not announced as such, Koga had assumed his March 27 appearance would be his last for the program. He was supposed to discuss the crisis in Yemen, but when Furutachi asked him for an analysis Koga changed the subject and mentioned he would be leaving the show due to the desires of TV Asahi’s top brass and Furutachi’s management company, which has a hand in the production.

Such a revelation was unusual in and of itself — “Hodo Station” is broadcast live — but Furutachi compounded the surreal quality of the moment by contradicting Koga, saying it “isn’t the case” that he is being dropped. Koga replied that was odd as Furutachi had earlier apologized to him for “not being able to do anything” about the dismissal, and Koga could prove it since he recorded their conversation. He then went on to castigate Abe.

Furutachi’s famous candor as an interviewer is a function of his prima donna attitude, and he obviously resented Koga for hijacking the show. TV Asahi was more forthcoming: Over the weekend, its PR department issued a statement blasting Koga, whose remarks about government involvement were “not based on fact.” It chastised him for rudeness and then apologized to viewers, even if the incident was probably the most entertaining thing that’s ever happened on “Hodo Station.” Adding to the excitement was a statement from Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga saying that the prime minister’s office had not put any pressure on TV Asahi to dump the ex-bureaucrat.

We can only take Koga’s word for it that he was dropped from the show because of his views, but even if TV Asahi and the government are telling the truth, members of Japan’s mainstream press, unlike Koga, go easy on those in power as a matter of course, and not because they’re intimidated.

In a recent piece in Gendai Business about the Reporters Without Borders ranking, former Tokyo Shimbun editor Yukihiro Hasegawa said there is no real press freedom in Japan, “but it has nothing to do with the secrecy act.” Most reporters would never leak confidential information because they aren’t, strictly speaking, reporters. “They are salarymen,” Hasegawa says, and care more about their positions within their companies than they do about their work: “They’re all in line waiting for promotions.”

The notorious press clubs, where journalists regurgitate information spoon-fed to them by government organs, are designed so that every news outlet has a fair and equal shot at a story.

“It’s an open secret,” Hasegawa points out, “that when reporters talk to politicians, they all share their memos with one another.”

This means every news outlet reports the same information, the only difference being the outlet’s “ideology.” As to whether or not this helps the government, Hasegawa doesn’t think it makes any difference.

“The media covered the collective forces issue thoroughly,” he says, referring to Abe’s efforts to allow the Self-Defense Forces to participate in military activities with allies, “but the public doesn’t know anything about it.”

In a February interview with Mainichi Shimbun, also about press freedom, bestselling novelist Jiro Asada decried gumin shisō —limiting information so as to better control the people — but why should the government need to cultivate “ignorant masses” when the media is incapable of making the news relevant anyway?

It’s worth noting that Hasegawa is a political conservative — he has no ethical problem with the secrecy act — who worked for the most liberal daily in Japan. He has seen firsthand how truth is at the service of expedience. Koga’s impromptu rant has drawn both admiration and condemnation, but in the end he’s just screaming into the void.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
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