In September, public broadcaster NHK aired a documentary that recounted the news events from the capital this summer. One of the segments focused on the continuing protests led by college students in central Tokyo against the controversial security bills the ruling Liberal Democratic Party had yet to pass. It was followed by a different one about demonstrations carried out in Shinjuku Ward by young people who supported the security bills.

The two stories were given equal time, even though the central Tokyo protests were ongoing and involved thousands of people while the demonstration in Shinjuku was a one-off event attended by several hundred people. Parity seemed to be the purpose. NHK probably felt it could only mention the anti-government protests if it also included something that was pro-government.

This interpretation of “neutrality” is at the heart of the feud between the Liberal Democratic Party and the Broadcasting Ethics and Program Improvement Organization (BPO), a third party panel launched in 2003 and funded by all Japanese broadcasters, including NHK, to monitor broadcast practices. Last month, the BPO criticized the government for “pressuring” NHK with a reprimand over an alleged staged interview that happened on its news program, “Closeup Gendai,” in May 2014. Though the BPO has also criticized NHK for the same interview, it felt that the LDP was exploiting its position of power for purposes of intimidation.

Anyone who watches NHK News regularly will wonder why the LDP needs to apply any pressure, since NHK’s approach to government policy is hardly adversarial. An article that appeared in the online magazine Litera indicates that something more may have been at stake.

On April 17 an LDP investigative committee summoned officials from NHK and TV Asahi to explain perceived breaches of broadcast ethics. In NHK’s case it was the “Closeup Gendai” interview. For TV Asahi it was a recent claim made by commentator Shigeaki Koga on the news show “Hodo Station” that he had been the object of “severe bashing” from the Cabinet after he criticized Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on the show. Later, the internal affairs minister, Sanae Takaichi, reprimanded both companies in writing, claiming they had violated the Broadcast Law.

Takaichi’s reprimand raised eyebrows. The Broadcast Law was implemented in 1950 as a means of preventing the authorities from using broadcast media for propaganda purposes, as the military government had done with print media before and during World War II. It promotes the impartiality of programs by forbidding those in power from interfering in broadcast entities’ operations. Broadcasters guarantee impartiality through self-regulation, and one self-regulatory tool is the BPO.

That means Takaichi and the LDP either don’t understand the law or are twisting its meaning to their own ends. In either case, as Litera points out, most news shows have covered the LDP’s censure of NHK more closely than they have the BPO complaint against the LDP, which is usually only mentioned as a footnote. Though the BPO wants broadcasters to fight back against the government’s heavy-handed tactics, most news producers play it safe.

One BPO panel member who expected this to happen was film director Hirokazu Koreeda. In a Nov. 7 post on his blog, he wrote, “I was afraid the media would prefer not to address this sort of thing.” The Broadcast Law was made to safeguard the right of broadcasters to police themselves, but the government claims it has the authority to determine impartiality, as indicated by a remark that Abe made March 3 during a Lower House budget committee meeting. Asked about a letter the LDP had sent to broadcasters the previous fall before the general election, he said, “It’s natural to ask them to be impartial.” But the law clearly states it is not the government’s place to make such demands. Contrary to what Takaichi and Abe think, it is they who are violating the spirit if not the letter of the law.

Koreeda implores broadcasters to “think for themselves,” which he says is the real meaning of “impartiality.” The government places “neutrality” as the most important mission of the media. But the real goal of journalism is getting at the truth, not relaying all sides of an issue as if each had equal merit. There is something to be said for giving all candidates in an election equal time to present their views, but extending that proviso to all journalistic endeavors defeats the purpose of news reporting.

In fact, Koreeda thinks the BPO doesn’t go far enough. He says the watchdog group receives many missives from public figures who complain of being asked critical questions on TV programs as if it were unfair. Koreeda thinks the BPO should publish the names of these people and make it clear that, like Takaichi, they don’t understand the law.

A recent target of these people’s ire is Shigetada Kishii, the anchor of TBS’s “News 23,” who in September remarked on air that the security bills were flawed and the LDP’s method for passing them undemocratic. A group called The Viewers Committee to Demand Compliance With the Broadcast Law bought full-page ads in the Yomiuri Shimbun and the Sankei Shimbun blasting Kishii. A legal expert told the Tokyo Shimbun last week that the committee, which includes some well-known scholars, disregards the fact that the law “ensures freedom of expression.” Another expert added that broadcasters must understand that anyone in power naturally wants to “manipulate public opinion” in order to “strengthen their position,” so it is the media’s job to criticize the government “from outside.” That is the real meaning of “fairness.”

Litera implies that some LDP members want to use these incidents to somehow get rid of the BPO and set up a new media oversight group, presumably one that is publicly funded and, thus, beholden to the government. If that happens then media impartiality will be dead, unless broadcasters themselves decide to assert their independence beforehand. So far there’s little evidence that they will.

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