Journalists and academics have joined forces to openly criticize recent remarks by communications minister Sanae Takaichi that the government might suspend broadcasters’ operations if they air programs it considers politically biased.

Takaichi’s Feb. 8 remarks on the Broadcast Law, which includes a call for political neutrality, have since sparked a widespread outcry that they are tantamount to the repression of free speech and run afoul of the nation’s democratic principles.

On Wednesday, a group of scholars unveiled a statement protesting the remarks, calling them emblematic of what they say is the Prime Minister Shinzo Abe-led government’s “blatant” willingness to abuse power.

“Unlike its predecessors, the current administration doesn’t hesitate at all to openly pressure the media,” Osamu Nishitani, a professor of philosophy at Rikkyo University, told a Tokyo news conference organized by a group of academics called “Save Constitutional Democracy Japan.”

Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party reportedly urged Tokyo-based TV networks to keep their programs politically neutral ahead of the 2014 Lower House election.

A series of impending resignations involving newscasters known for their candid critiques of the powers that be — such as Hiroko Kuniya from NHK and Ichiro Furutachi from TV Asahi — are also a sinister indication that the government may be stepping up a crackdown on the media, Nishitani said.

Takaichi’s remarks, then, shouldn’t be considered a mere gaffe, but rather an encapsulation of the Abe administration’s overall attitude toward the media, Nishitani said.

What is peculiar to Japan, the scholars further pointed out in the letter, is that the government not only draws up a broadcasting law but has the authority to implement it against broadcasters. This, they said, puts Japan in stark contrast with the United States and many European nations, where an agency independent of government influence has the ultimate power to effect such laws.

Brushing aside the widespread outcry over her remarks, Takaichi, for her part, stands by her affirmation that the government can suspend operations of politically biased broadcasters in accordance with existing laws.

Although she initially denied she would resort to such a measure during her tenure, the minister appeared to ratchet up her rhetoric a notch Tuesday.

Asked whether she would order suspensions of broadcasters’ operations deemed to be politically unfair, Takaichi said: “Japan is a country governed by law. So I believe it’s the duty of the Cabinet to faithfully execute a law if need be.”

She was responding to a question from Democratic Party of Japan lawmaker Junya Ogawa.

On Monday, meanwhile, prominent newscasters including Soichiro Tahara, Shuntaro Torigoe and Shigetada Kishii held a news conference in Tokyo in which they vehemently criticized the minister’s comments.

One of them, veteran TBS anchor Shigenori Kanehira told The Japan Times on Wednesday that he is worried about negative impacts stemming from the Abe government’s pressure on media.

“Some of us may succumb to government pressure and decide to censor ourselves. That’s the nature of the crisis we’re up against,” Kanehira said.

Staff Writer Ayako Mie contributed to this report

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