An Internet strategy adviser to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is keeping his eyes peeled for what he calls “mistakes” by foreign media, because he thinks nobody in the government or the ruling Liberal Democratic Party has ever paid proper attention.
Ichita Yamamoto, a 58-year-old LDP lawmaker who serves as special adviser to Abe on web strategy, has spent the last two months hunting through cyberspace for articles by leading publications that he suspects misrepresented Abe’s policies.
Whenever he spots a perceived misrepresentation, Yamamoto approaches the authors on social media and, in his words, “politely challenges” their articles to launch a “healthy debate” with them.
“Previously, we had no system in which to openly dispute foreign media whenever they made mistakes in reporting on our prime minister’s policies, such as Abenomics and the national security bills,” Yamamoto told The Japan Times.
“When something like this happens, it’s critical that we respond and make our views known. I hope my project will boost the Abe administration’s presence and spread correct knowledge of his policies internationally,” he said.
Yamamoto says his actions, dubbed hissatsu chokkainin (a tough guy who meddles), is not aimed at squelching freedom of the press.
But critics see sinister echoes of the LDP’s notoriously heavy-handed attitude toward domestic media and the Abe government’s apparent wish to control how its policies are reported.
Tactics of engagement
What Yamamoto does is simple.
Together with a team of tech-savvy experts on politics, the economy and social media, Yamamoto runs a weekly review of reporting by foreign journalists by English-language news organizations, including The New York Times, Financial Times, The Washington Post and Newsweek.
Subject to his scrutiny are about 30 correspondents he considers particularly influential, based on criteria such as the number of followers they have on Twitter. Should he find their stories misleading, he points out their “mistakes” on Twitter and waits for the journalists to respond. Most do not.
By “mistakes,” he refers not only to factual errors but to more editorial aspects of a story — such as its tone or angle — that he found unjustly critical of government policies.
“I’d like to disagree with (the) subtitle,” Yamamoto tweeted in broken English to a Wall Street Journal reporter who wrote a story titled “How Japan’s ‘Abenomics’ Reached an Impasse” in February. “I believe still premature to grade #Abenomics as ‘failed,’ ” he continued.
“Japan changing while world just changed quicker. Oil, China & other factors, still being optimistic is quite an accomplishment,” he tweeted.
Seldom do the reporters respond, but if they do, Yamamoto said he informs Abe of their exchanges on the Web.
Every week, he also posts a webcast that talks about, among other subjects, the stories he contradicted and why.
Yamamoto has so far taken issue with about 15 articles by foreign media. He says he eventually wants to expand his critique to other languages, including German and French.
The lawmaker brushed off criticism that his initiative represents an effort by the government to pressure foreign media into silence.
“I mean, what kind of journalist would freak out and become hesitant in their reporting just because they got a reply from the prime minister’s adviser on Twitter? That’s not how journalists should be.”
Moreover, he said, his policy of keeping exchanges polite makes his critiques sound less overbearing.
Although he serves as Abe’s adviser, he says his words do not necessarily represent the government’s position, as he is challenging the journalists of his own volition, not at anyone’s request.
The fact that foreign correspondents often write their stories under their bylines, he said, suggests they are used to taking responsibility for their work and therefore are more capable of taking criticism in their stride than Japanese reporters.
Yamamoto’s insistence that this is a one-man effort is met with skepticism from some quarters.
Critics say his initiative echoes a recent slew of actions by the government and the LDP apparently aimed at cowing critics online and in print.
Press freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders last week expressed concern over what it called “the decline in media freedom” since Abe swept to power in December 2012.
“The Abe administration’s threats to media independence, the turnover in media personnel in recent months and the increase in self-censorship within leading media outlets are endangering the underpinnings of democracy in Japan,” the watchdog said in a statement.
The group cited a recent string of dismissals of TV anchors who were seen as critics of the government. They included NHK’s Hiroko Kuniya and Ichiro Furutachi from TV Asahi. It also described communications minister Sanae Takaichi’s recent “threat” to suspend the operations of TV broadcasters that air politically biased reports as symbolic of the Abe government’s “hostility towards critical coverage.”
Reports said the LDP issued an unprecedented directive in November 2014 warning TV broadcasters to keep their programming “politically neutral” ahead of a general election.
Japan is ranked 61st out of 180 countries in the 2015 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index, down two places from the previous year.
Larry Repeta, a professor of law at Tokyo’s Meiji University, condemned Yamamoto’s project as “outrageous,” saying he is unaware of similar efforts to monitor foreign journalists in “any democratic country.”
“If this man is a member of the national parliament in the prime minister’s party, and it’s believed that he either represents or advises the prime minister, then his words have authority. The notion that such a person would identify specific journalists and complain about their work, criticize their work, is a threat to the work of journalists,” he said.
It is unclear whether Yamamoto’s modest effort to pick holes in foreign coverage will have much impact, but Repeta said one thing is clear: It will damage Japan’s reputation as a democratic society.
“The most immediate effect is that all over the world, people are going to be laughing at the Japanese government.” he said.
Meanwhile, Japan-based journalist David McNeill, who contributes to publications such as The Irish Times, The Economist and The Japan Times, said Yamamoto’s project will not influence what he writes.
“As a reporter, my loyalty is to my readers, not the government of Japan or elsewhere,” he said by email.
In fact, far from dissuading him and his fellow foreign correspondents from criticizing the government, McNeill joked that Yamamoto’s actions may in fact motivate reporters to hold the government more to account.
“Some of us think there will be competition between foreign correspondents to get onto Mr. Yamamoto’s blog — that would be a sign that we are doing our job well.”
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