National / Media

Shooting the messenger: journalism under siege in Japan

Journalists who refuse to toe the official line are under pressure, experts say

by David Mcneill and Justin Mccurry

Special To The Japan Times

Abandon all reason
Avoid all eye contact
Do not react
Shoot the messengers
This is a low-flying panic attack
— “Burn the Witch,” Radiohead

Hair graying and dressed in slacks and an open-necked shirt, 58-year-old Takashi Uemura would be hard to pick out in a crowd — even for the neo-nationalists who despise him.

The former journalist shrugs off the possibility that such hatred might one day translate into violence. Yet, as he talks, Uemura pushes his glasses up to his brow, creases his forehead and gives a look that says, “Why me?”

A quarter of a century ago, Uemura penned two articles as a young Osaka-based reporter for his then employer, the Asahi Shimbun, about Asian “comfort women” who were corralled into Japanese military brothels before and during World War II.

The articles made him a hated figure on the right. The initial low-key criticism, published in the conservative monthly Bungei Shunju over the years built into a furious campaign of denunciation that branded him a “fabricator” and a “traitor.”

In 2014, the campaign peaked when Uemura took early retirement and applied for a teaching position at Kobe Shoin University. His job offer was retracted after the university received death threats and hate mail triggered by an article in Shukan Bunshun.

The vilification followed him to a second prospective employer, the small Hokusei Gakuin University in Hokkaido, this time including a threat to blow up the university and harm his family. A picture of his daughter, who is half Korean, was published online by right-wingers.

“I couldn’t believe it,” he recalls. “I had become a symbol of the right’s hatred of the Asahi.”

Uemura has become a potent symbol of what many commentators believe is a renewed assault on journalists who refuse to reflect the official view — on comfort women and other sensitive subjects — under the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Throughout Uemura’s ordeal, needless to say, Abe has stayed silent.

Media watchdog

The role of journalism as guardian of the public interest against abuses of power has long been understood as its most important function in liberal democracies. An independent media should prompt debate and the free flow of information about the political and economic interests that dominate our lives.

A conflicting view — one prevalent in Japan in the 1930s and ’40s, and in modern-day China — is that the media should primarily be an instrument of state power, distributing “official” information.

This debate often breaks down along left-right lines, although that should not be the case, argues Kengo Suganuma, chief editor of Tokyo Shimbun.

“Our critics say we are left-wing or ‘anti-Abe,’ but we think of what we do as monitoring power, looking at the powerful from the position of the bottom, or from the perspective of people with no power,” he said. Newspapers, he adds, should be watchdogs on behalf of their readers.

Japan’s media was reformed after World War II to guide it in the direction of the watchdog model. Although those efforts were often circumscribed by political and economic pressure, and by the formalized control over the free distribution of information promoted by the press club system, it performed pretty well.

Not anymore. Journalism in Japan is under siege. The latest Freedom House rankings put Japan 44th in the world; Reporters Without Borders recently ranked Japan at 72 out of 180 countries, down from 11th place in 2010.

Japan is one of four countries that fell out of the “full democracy” category (along with South Korea, Costa Rica and France) in the latest Democracy Index published by The Economist (a publication that McNeill writes for, although he has no involvement in compiling those indexes).

Uemura’s story helped inform a critical report on the country’s declining press freedom by U.N. Special Rapporteur David Kaye in April. After interviews with many Japanese journalists, most of whom spoke anonymously, Kaye warned of “serious threats” to the independence of the media.

“A significant number of journalists I met feel intense pressure from the government, abetted by management, to conform their reporting to official policy preferences,” he said. “Many claimed to have been sidelined or silenced following indirect pressure from leading politicians.”

That alarming verdict might have triggered a robust official response; a pledge, perhaps, to launch an enquiry into the worsening health of the domestic news industry. Instead, Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida blamed the messenger.

“The Japanese government’s explanation was not sufficiently reflected (in Kaye’s report),” he lamented.

One way to rectify this might have been for communications minister Sanae Takaichi to have met Kaye, but she was apparently “busy” in the Diet.

In February, Takaichi sparked controversy by “reminding” TV companies that flouting rules on political impartiality could result in the withdrawal of their broadcasting licenses.

Kaye’s news conference, though given widespread coverage by the liberal media in Japan (notably TBS, TV Asahi and the Tokyo Shimbun), was all but ignored by the country’s most powerful broadcaster, NHK, and its leading newspaper, the Yomiuri Shimbun — somewhat proving his point.

It is possible to nitpick over these media rankings. Does Japan, as the Reporters Without Borders suggests, really deserve to be lower than South Korea, where journalists such as the Sankei Shimbun’s Tatsuya Kato, are being arrested for doing their job? And where prosecutors recently indicted a professor of Japanese literature who wrote a book complicating the nation’s official narrative about comfort women?

Inevitably, such questions were forcibly put to foreign reporters who write about Japan’s slide down the press freedom table. “If you think Japan is so bad, why don’t you go and live in China,” is a typical comment. Of course, the free media is under threat across much of the planet. The point is: how to keep Japan from becoming more like China.

We’re a long way from that: China is 176th in the Reporters Without Borders rankings. Its latest crime against free expression has been to rendition a Swedish citizen who published risque books about China’s political elite. Still, some seem determined to rid the Japanese media of its gadflies and critics, and make journalism a tool of government policy.

The person who perhaps most clearly expresses this drive is the president of NHK, Katsuto Momii, who has made a string of statements suggesting he does not understand that his organization is supposed to be independent from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

First, there was Momii’s remark in his first news conference, when he noted that when the government says “right,” NHK cannot say “left.” Meanwhile, during a meeting on April 20, 2016, he instructed subordinates to toe the government line in covering the Kyushu earthquake and avoid airing the views of outside experts. That would “only raise concerns among the public,” he said.

As Japan is not an undemocratic state like China, the exact mechanism of media control appears puzzling. The Japanese media is legally independent of state power. Most of the nation’s broadcasters, and all the big publishers, are private.

NHK’s mission is set out on its website: Unlike a state-sponsored broadcaster, which is “run under strong state supervision,” a public broadcaster is “run independent from state control,” it says.

The old debate on how exactly “independent” this is was ignited anew this year when Hiroko Kuniya, who helmed NHK’s flagship investigative program “Close-up Gendai” for two decades, quit.

She was one of the country’s most outspoken liberal anchors, along with Ichiro Furutachi, presenter of evening news show “Hodo Station,” and Shigetada Kishii, who had a regular slot on rival TBS. All three are now gone from the primetime airwaves. Inevitably, speculation over their departures centered on “government pressure.”

The weekly press blamed Kuniya’s downfall on a 14-minute interview on July 3, 2014, with Yoshihide Suga, the government’s top spokesman. During the interview Kuniya asked an unscripted question about the possibility that the new security legislation might cause Japan to become embroiled in other country’s wars.

Kuniya subsequently discussed the Suga interview with the highbrow monthly magazine Sekai, saying she was “strongly aware” of spreading public unease over the Constitution.

“I was asking myself: What does the audience right now expect me most to ask the government?” she said.

Yet, she acknowledged that most in her profession don’t push too hard, “even when the interviewees are politicians, corporate managers or those supposed to be accountable to the public.”

“There remains an atmosphere that regards it a matter of courtesy not to pursue insistently what the interviewees do not want to talk about,” she said. “And it is a fact that we receive a strong backlash from the audience after broadcasting such tough interviews with popular figures. This fūatsu (pressure) is unique to Japan’s society. Even now, isn’t the media complicit in the pressure?”

Is Kuniya right in calling such pressure unique? Governments all over the world try to nudge, steer, intimidate and, sometimes, beat the media into submission. The difference, as we have found during our research into a book we are co-writing on the Japanese media, is how newspapers and broadcasters respond to pressure, however it is applied.

Take, for example, the Liberal Democratic Party’s demand for “fair and neutral” reporting by the media during campaigning for the 2014 general election. Elsewhere, such demands would be laughed off — or taken as a sign that the media is functioning properly. Had the director-general of the British Broadcasting Corp. aped Momii in his determination to do the government’s bidding, the papers and airwaves would have been alive with robust — not muted — defenses of media independence … by BBC journalists.

Japanese journalists are often frustrated by the limits imposed on their work. Yet, instead of looking squarely at the dangers of this malfunctioning system, critics have preferred to blame people such as Kaye — and even, bizarrely, foreign correspondents like us — for the perception that media freedom is eroding in Japan.

Several Japanese publications have posted large sales in recent months by going where their larger rivals fear to tread. They include the Shukan Bunshun, the same scattershot tabloid that attacked Uemura and which has been behind a slew of scoops, ranging from bribery allegations involving economy minister Akira Amari — who was forced to resign in January — to an adulterous LDP politician who had campaigned for paternity leave.

In most cases, journalists working for the national papers are privy to sensitive — and sensational — information, but choose to keep it under wraps for fear of angering cautious editors, according to Shigeo Abe, publisher of the subscription-only magazine Facta.

“The biggest problem with the Japanese media is voluntary restraint,” he said earlier this month as part of a roundtable discussion with regular members of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan. “They don’t want to take risks. Some reporters are bolder, but they get sidelined because they take risks — they’re given a ‘window seat,’ or demotion.”

Manabu Shintani, editor-in-chief of Shukan Bunshun, was only half-joking when he said the biggest threat to his company was himself. However, the perception that he had an axe to grind with the current administration in Nagatacho was wide of the mark.

“We’re not in favor of a certain group, we’re just laying out the reality of any given situation,” Shintani said. “I was asked recently why Shukan Bunshun had suddenly become anti-Abe. I was surprised to hear that, because we really are not taking sides.”

Shintani said he had noticed a reluctance among broadcasters to take on politicians, notably communications minister Takaichi.

“I talked to a TV colleague about Takaichi and suggested they do some research on her,” Shintani said. “But they didn’t, so we did it ourselves and titled the piece, ‘Why we hate Minister Takaichi.'”

Is there anywhere Shukan Bunshun would fear to tread? The magazine pulls its punches on the Imperial household, partly out of fear of sparking violent retaliation from the far right of the kind that allegedly led to the 1987 murder of Tomohiro Kojiri, an Asahi journalist and colleague of Uemura’s.

“However, it’s also about the reaction of our readers,” Shintani said. “We are a Japanese magazine and we love our country, so we wouldn’t want to do anything that breaks the bond of trust we have established with our readers.”

As he anticipates a drawn-out legal battle relating to two defamation suits he has launched in Hokkaido and Tokyo, Uemura, now a teacher at the Catholic University in Seoul, is content to register minor victories against his critics.

They include appearances in the global media and, in July 2015, an interview with his nemesis, the conservative Sankei Shimbun, which has waged a campaign to reverse Japan’s acknowledgments of wartime misdeeds.

The reporters, he recalls, were unable to rebuff his claims about unfair treatment. After all, the Sankei had itself used the terms “women’s volunteer corps” and “forcible recruitment” — precisely what the Sankei had been criticizing Uemura for doing — in its coverage of the comfort women issue. He has written a book defending himself and penned essays in Japan, including one for Bungei Shunju, the first publication to publish claims against him. His lawyers work largely for free, and a network of sympathetic journalists and academics helps with everything from media appointments to administrative chores.

A notable exception among his supporters is his former employer, the Asahi Shimbun, whose investigation into the comfort women debacle found him innocent of any professional wrongdoing.

“The Asahi isn’t supporting me in an official capacity during my trial, but there are lots of individual journalists and former reporters there who have given me their backing,” he said, describing the atmosphere surrounding liberal journalists as a Japanese version of McCarthyism.

“The best form of defense is to fight back,” he said, “However, the Asahi isn’t doing that.”

Not that Uemura is particularly surprised. “Japanese journalists are considered part of the elite — they’re well educated and generally earn generous salaries,” he said. “They don’t have the stomach to take on controversial subjects. That’s why I have to win my case. This isn’t about me; it’s about the very future of Japanese journalism.”


Domestic media ‘contributing to its own weakness’

YUJI YOSHITOMI
Special To The Japan Times

During Toru Hashimoto’s term as Osaka mayor, I became known among local and national media and the public as a “Hashimoto watcher.” I had covered Osaka politics for more than a decade for various media, and wrote a book about him. However, Hashimoto described me as a “phony journalist,” apparently because I repeatedly criticized his policies. He spent almost 10 minutes of his final news conference in December 2015 complaining about a certain “phony journalist,” although he stopped short of mentioning my name.

Hashimoto has repeatedly said “democracy is important” and that “the media is necessary to create a sound democracy.” He’s correct. Sound journalism must have a strong critical spirit and challenge influential people without fear.

However, although Hashimoto officially expressed support for the importance of media coverage, he quickly changed his attitude toward media organizations and journalists, verbally abusing them once they began criticizing him.

Hashimoto’s bitter relationship with the media became more pronounced in May 2013 after his remarks about “comfort women.”

When journalists asked him about those comments, he had said the comfort women system had been “necessary at the time” and snapped back at the journalists with questions of his own until they were cowed.

Hashimoto also had particularly harsh words for the Asahi Shimbun and Mainichi Shimbun, sometimes claiming during news conferences that certain articles in either paper were “incorrect” and asking their reporters on the scene for official comments — even though those reporters did not write the articles or were not in a position to speak on behalf of their companies.

When Hashimoto verbally abused certain media organizations or their critical reporting, the rest of the media started to wonder whether they’d be his next target. TV stations were bombarded with phone calls from Hashimoto’s fanatical supporters whenever they broadcast programs critical of him. This touchy atmosphere surrounding Hashimoto, his supporters and the media together played a major role in containing criticism against him.

Just like those in the Osaka media who became scared of, and then obedient toward, overbearing power-wielders, the Japanese media in general seemingly won’t stand up to the corruption of power.

Thus, the government is not the only one to be blamed for the country’s drop in the 2016 World Press Freedom Index to 72nd place. The domestic media’s inaction in fulfilling their watchdog role has contributed to the result.

Yuji Yoshitomi is a freelance journalist based in Osaka.