Outspoken NHK Chairman Katsuto Momii has found himself once again mired in controversy after news leaked he gave instructions that the public broadcaster should stick to the official government line when reporting on the nuclear reactor situation in quake-hit Kyushu.
Momii later tried to defend the policy, saying it was aimed at preventing confusion among survivors of the quake who are being bombarded with a wide range of views and commentary.
Still, for Yasuhiko Tajima, a professor of media studies at Sophia University, Momii’s latest assertion carries very grave implications on many different levels and makes the broadcaster look like a mouthpiece for the government.
“No authority or company wants to make available information that may work to their disadvantage, no matter how important it is to citizens,” Tajima said.
That is why all citizens, including disaster survivors, he said, are entitled to the right to scrutinize various aspects of the information they are being presented and decide what they choose to believe. Denying citizens such a choice smacks of “dictatorship” and is even “criminal,” he said.
The policy, Tajima added, risks leaving quake survivors in the dark, particularly if the government tries to hide critical information, and amounts to a denial on the part of NHK of the media’s role of being critical of the powers that be.
Reports emerged last week that Momii had instructed NHK executives during an internal meeting on April 20 to ensure their reports on the nuclear reactors near the disaster-hit area are “based on official announcements.”
He also reportedly said that presenting viewers with a flurry of different expert opinions would only confuse local people and spark anxiety.
Speaking to a Lower House Diet committee Tuesday, Momii acknowledged the policy.
“If, for example, the Nuclear Regulation Authority said reactors are safe or can operate as normal, we will report that announcement,” he said.
In a back-and-forth discussion with Democratic Party lawmaker Soichiro Okuno, Momii said NHK will report on such things as radiation monitoring “based on facts … without adding various commentary.”
“Keeping our coverage fact-based is what gives locals a sense of reassurance,” Momii said, adding his comment does not equate to Japan’s wartime propaganda, under which citizens were kept in the dark about the conflict’s progress.
When asked to clarify what constitutes official information, Momii cited state-affiliated sources such as the NRA, the nation’s nuclear watchdog, and the Meteorological Agency, as well as Kyushu Electric Power Co., which operates the Sendai plant in Kagoshima Prefecture and the Genkai plant in Saga. The only two commercial reactors currently operating in the country are at the Sendai complex.
Momii’s comments and policy mirror controversial remarks he made at his inaugural news conference in January 2014 where he insisted that NHK’s international broadcasting content should stick to the government’s position.
“When the government says to go right, you can’t go left,” he said at the news conference.
Momii’s latest controversy follows an annual report released by Paris-based Reporters Without Borders on April 20 that saw press freedom in Japan drop to No. 72 globally from No. 61 the previous year, exacerbating concerns over free speech.