After a week of conducting interviews, a United Nations expert on freedom of expression concluded Tuesday that Japan’s media independence is being jeopardized by government pressure, however inconspicuous it may be.

David Kaye, U.N. special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, also said the organizational structure of the media industry in Japan has undermined journalists’ ability to counter such pressure.

“The theoretical possibility of government regulation and organization … combined cause media freedom to suffer; media independence to suffer,” Kaye told a news conference Tuesday at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan in Tokyo.

It was his first official news conference since his original visit in December was postponed at the request of the Foreign Ministry because it was “unable to arrange meetings” with officials at that time.

Kaye pointed out there is “serious concern” about the ability of journalists to independently report on sensitive issues such as nuclear power due to the pressure exerted when the government flexes its regulatory muscles.

In February, communications minister Sanae Takaichi ominously noted that under the Broadcast Act the government can legally suspend the licenses of TV stations and networks if their programming is found to contain political bias.

Although government officials insist the remark was simply a factual statement about the law, the existence of the policy itself may reasonably be perceived as a threat to media freedom in Japan, Kaye said.

“I think this is a significant problem that the Broadcast Act allows for regulation by the government of the media,” he said, adding the law should be amended to prevent the state from being in a position to adjudicate what constitutes “bias.”

Meanwhile, Kaye also pointed out that the kisha club system in Japan — media associations formed around certain groups and government organizations through which reporters are granted access — should be abolished to regain media independence.

“Journalists in those kisha clubs tend to be focused very much together in this same kind of social network. And I think that allows for mechanisms of pressure. It may be soft pressure. It may be a kind of peer pressure that’s very difficult to resist,” he said.

“It’s common for journalists (in general) to describe their role as a watchdog … to not just take government information as a kind of scribe and copy it and put it online or put it in a newspaper or repeat it on a broadcast network. But (the role is) to question it; it’s to question government policies. It’s to question government conclusions,” Kaye said.

“It is normal for government to push back against journalists’ reporting. … But it’s the role of the media to push back on the government as well,” he said.

Over a weeklong trip that began April 12, Kaye met with various national authorities, nongovernmental organizations, journalists and media to exchange opinions and to examine the situation of freedom of expression in Japan.

Before officially inviting Kaye this time, the government postponed his originally scheduled visit in December, a move that ended up drawing heavy criticism. Freedom advocates said the government was trying to prevent Kaye from highlighting serious issues over press freedom in Japan in the international spotlight.

Asked about the rescheduling, Kaye said he can only refer to what he was told by the government, which said many officials were unavailable due to the budget compilation process.

Meanwhile, Kaye praised Japan’s Internet freedom and widespread broadband accessibility, saying the country needs to work to remain a role model for other nations that practice censorship of online discourse.

The full report on Kaye’s investigation will be published in 2017 to be submitted to the U.N.’s Human Rights Council.

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