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The government is under fire for failing to protect press freedom following a Japan Times report by a British journalist revealing that the U.S. military has spied on him over his activities in Okinawa.

Reporters Without Borders, a nonprofit organization that advocates for press freedom, condemned the U.S. military and the Japanese government Sunday for allowing the surveillance of Jon Mitchell, because “it compromises its duty to guarantee media freedom.”

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Monday the government is in no position to comment on the activities of the U.S. military, but he added that the government observes press freedom.

“The Japanese government does not reject any lawful protest in Okinawa,” Suga said. “We have never pressured journalists or media organizations.”

According to Mitchell’s report published last Wednesday by The Japan Times, the U.S. military also collected information about Japanese protesters and citizens’ groups.

U.S. Forces in Japan said Mitchell’s allegation that they “spy” on protesters and reporters is “absolutely false,” and that they are observing the actions of protesters and other activities for security purposes.

“Ensuring the security of our installations and observing the actions of protesters and other activities along the base fence lines and at the gates is not only authorized by agreements between the U.S. and Japan — it is necessary for the safety and security of our people and our operations,” U.S. Forces Japan spokesman Maj. John Severns said in an email.

“We are also authorized to view publicly available websites and read local newspaper articles about the protesters and public figures on Okinawa. Such basic observational functions are not illegal, not a violation of the First Amendment, relevant Japanese laws, or U.S. military policies and procedures,” he said.

The latest round of condemnation joins mounting criticism by such organizations as the United Nations to the effect that press freedom has come under siege since Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took office.

Among 268 documents Mitchell obtained through the Freedom of Information Act was a bulletin issued by the Camp Butler Criminal Investigation Division that described a lecture Mitchell gave near Camp Schwab on the military’s environmental contamination. It included his profile and photo. One email described Mitchell as “adversarial” and said his “tone of reporting is hostile.”

The revelation came as Mitchell investigated why his access to U.S. military websites was blocked after he reported on the discovery of dioxin near two military schools within Kadena Air Base.

President Barack Obama is known for his tough stance against whistleblowers, and journalists have been subpoenaed to disclose anonymous sources related to acts of terrorism and criminal conduct.

But none of Mitchell’s activities have been deemed illegal or related to criminal conduct. Lawrence Repeta of Meiji University said if Mitchell’s allegation is true, it would constitute a violation of the right of free speech.

“I understand that U.S. government officials might be embarrassed by the information that has been disclosed by him. But there is no justification for the U.S. government to spy on journalists,” Repeta said.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
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