Recent calls from the younger ranks of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party to “punish” media critical of the government’s contentious national security bills have sparked an industry outcry, providing ammunition to the opposition and even raising the eyebrows of veteran ruling party lawmakers.

During Thursday’s gathering of a group of young LDP lawmakers close to Abe, attendees bashed media organizations for criticizing the security legislation being debated in the Diet, saying an effective way to “punish those media is to take out their ad revenues.”

To quell the situation, Abe on Friday expressed regret over the alleged remarks.

“If it’s true, it would be very regrettable,” Abe told a Lower House panel, stressing that his party gives priority to freedom and democracy, of which freedom of the press is a vital component.

At the gathering, the group also urged intellectuals to pressure Keidanren, the influential business lobby, to stop sponsoring critical media organizations.

Among the 40 or so attendees at the meeting were Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato and Koichi Hagiuda, a special adviser to Abe.

A Keidanren spokesperson told The Japan Times on Friday that it is aware of the reports but had no comment.

Also present as a guest speaker was novelist Naoki Hyakuta, a former NHK governor who has drawn flack in the past for controversial remarks. He said newspapers critical of the government should be closed.

“The two Okinawan newspapers must be destroyed. I believe if some of the islands in Okinawa (Prefecture) were to be invaded by China, although such a thing should not happen, they will awake from their sleep,” he said, referring to the editorial direction of The Okinawa Times and Ryukyu Shimpo.

Tatsuya Ishikawa, a member of the editorial staff at The Okinawa Times, said the comment shows Hyakuta’s lack of knowledge about the situation.

He said the newspaper was established to provide balanced reporting, with a belief that the unfair reporting conducted by the wartime media had severe consequences during the Battle of Okinawa 70 years ago.

“Our reporting has been based on the principle of not allowing the citizens to experience war again or go through any similar experience,” he said. “Such comments are not going to affect our policy since we need to protect the freedom of expression and press as an Okinawan newspaper observing local issues very closely.”

Yoshikazu Shiohira, editor-in-chief of the Ryukyu Shimpo, blasted Hyakuta’s comments as an attack not only against Okinawan newspapers, but against the mass media as a whole.

But he said the novelist’s comments will not stop the paper from advocating freedom of speech, stressing it “will continue to maintain political neutrality and will seek to ensure fair news gathering and reporting with respect to freedom of expression.”

On Friday, Hyakuta told Kyodo News by telephone that his remark was intended as a joke that should have been kept off the record.

“I still wish (the two Okinawan papers) would disappear,” he said. “But I didn’t mean to say, ‘Quash them by political pressure.’ Such a thing should never be allowed.”

The incident has given the opposition a prime opportunity to attack the ruling camp.

“It is very problematic,” Katsuya Okada, leader of the largest opposition Democratic Party of Japan, said. “It has resulted from their arrogant belief that they can freely control the media.”

Masato Imai, policy chief of Ishin no To (Japan Innovation Party), blasted the young lawmakers and called the LDP an “authoritarian party” that regulates freedom of speech.

In response, LDP Secretary-General Sadakazu Tanigaki, a political dove, urged members to “speak with a calm mind.”

“It’s OK to criticize the media, but there should be some dignity when they make their points,” Tanigaki said at a regular news conference.

Another LDP veteran even apologized.

“We are sorry,” former Defense Minister Akinori Eto said, referring in particular to the remark reportedly made by Lower House member Takahiro Inoue, who said advertisements should be cut to punish certain mass media outlets. “We will strictly reprimand that lawmaker.”

But Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, who also belongs to the conservative party, tried to avoid taking sides.

He said he would not comment because it is an internal matter concerning the LDP, not the government.

He said the editorial freedom of broadcast programs is guaranteed and that freedom of expression is protected.

“Freedom of expression is properly guaranteed by the Constitution. In that sense, it is important to have a variety of discussions in Japan,” Suga said. Kenta Yamada, a professor of media studies at Senshu University in Tokyo, said the LDP group’s remarks reflects their ignorance.

“Those remarks were unforgivable coming from Diet members,” Yamada said. “The fact that they think they are allowed to punish the media because it holds differing views from the government by starving them shows their absolute lack of understanding of freedom of speech guaranteed by the Constitution, and also basic principle of a democratic society.” As for Hyakuta’s comments, he said the novelist is looking down at the people.

“What he said was that people living in Okinawa are being deceived by local papers. Such a way of thinking is condescending toward deriding Okinawans,” he said.

Information from Kyodo added

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