About three years ago, Makoto Watanabe, then an investigative reporter at The Asahi Shimbun newspaper, had a “hunch,” based on his experience covering the pharmaceutical industry, that an advertising agency might be paying a major news organization to write stories about certain drugs to promote companies the agency represented.

After digging around, he eventually struck gold. Documents obtained from a source showed a subsidiary of Dentsu, the world’s fifth-largest ad agency, which represented the German pharmaceutical company Bayer, had made payments to a company tied to the Kyodo News agency for “public relations assistance” through its articles.

“I was stunned,” said Watanabe, who quit The Asahi Shimbun in March 2016 to start the nonprofit investigative journalism outlet Waseda Chronicle, where he serves as editor-in-chief.

“I’d seen examples of so-called stealth marketing, but I had never imagined that a news organization such as Kyodo News and Dentsu would do such a thing,” he said in a recent interview with The Japan Times.

He and his team spent 10 months collecting evidence and interviewing people before they finally found their smoking gun. The team discovered that Dentsu Public Relations, a wholly owned subsidiary of Dentsu, had paid ¥550,000 to K.K. Kyodo News, a public relations and communications firm under the Kyodo News group, after Kyodo News reported on anti-blood coagulants for people who suffer a stroke as a regular news story, not as a paid advertisement.

K.K. Kyodo admitted to receiving the money, while the pharmaceutical company said it was not aware of such financial transactions and had not requested the articles be written.

The murky relationship between the press and ad agencies is the theme of the project “Journalism for Sale,” by the Waseda Chronicle, which debuted from its base at Waseda University in Tokyo in early February. (The group will launch an English version soon).

The Chronicle argues that the lines between the for-profit K.K. Kyodo News and nonprofit wire news service Kyodo News have been blurred, as Dentsu used its influence over K.K. Kyodo to disseminate a “news” story that could potentially benefit its client.

The tricky part is the story mentioned no particular drug. Rather, it said research by a health care forum, which is managed by Dentsu PR, found that 50 percent of patients who suffered cerebral infarctions stopped taking blood-thinning medications because they were not happy with the drugs.

The story then quoted an expert as saying that “now there are new drugs that patients need to take only once a day.”

The Chronicle found, however, that there was only one such drug on the market at the time: Xarelto, sold by Bayer. “This was a shrewd way to get patients interested in a particular drug without even naming it or its manufacturer,” the Chronicle wrote.

Watanabe said that he picked the issue as his first project as other news media outlets would not touch it due to its sensitive nature.

“As Dentsu is involved, other news organizations are not following up on the story,” he said.

The advertising giant was once said to be “untouchable,” apparently due to the enormous power it wielded in commissioning advertisements — the bread and butter of the media industry — until it became embroiled in a karoshi (death by overwork) scandal last year. After it emerged that Matsuri Takahashi, a 24-year-old female worker at Dentsu, committed suicide in December 2015, the chorus of public outrage that followed unleashed a flood of negative news coverage for the firm.

The Dentsu-Kyodo deal, however, was not a one-off arrangement. K.K. Kyodo received another ¥600,000 from Dentsu PR for running a story related to an acne medicine. The Chronicle’s reporting revealed that the head of the health department at K.K. Kyodo wrote the story, which was distributed through the news wire and carried by at least seven affiliated newspapers.

“Other news outlets might flinch, as they would also have to ask themselves if they do not have a similar scandal at their organizations,” said Watanabe. “But that’s why we are doing this … because we have to think about patients.”

In the era of fake news and alternative truths, where a government or news organization with a certain political slant can hide, fabricate and distort facts, investigative journalism can find a renewed mission: discovering truths, keeping the powers that be in check and serving the public good.

The reality, however, is that it is difficult for many in the news media to engage in real investigative journalism, which costs time and money, at a time when bottom lines continue to be tested.

ProPublica, which in 2010 became the first online news source to win a Pulitzer Prize, is funded through donations from various foundations. In South Korea, Newstapa, a nonprofit news organization founded by former television investigative journalists, is also financed by donations.

But in Japan, nonprofit investigative journalism models have not been successful, partly because, unlike the U.S., Japan does not have much of a donation culture.

The Waseda Chronicle wants to challenge the existing belief that a nonprofit journalism organization can not succeed in Japan. It also sees itself as a litmus test for whether the public is mature enough to support such journalism. The Chronicle crowdfunds its projects in addition to soliciting donations. For the current series, 273 people have donated more than ¥4.53 million so far, which is 1.2 times more than its original target through the end of May.

“I do not know if this model will work in Japan, but that should not be the reason not to do it,” said Watanabe. “But the fact that we have collected the donations in such a short time could mean this system could be sustainable if we become more well-known.”

Watanabe, 42, started working for the Asahi in 2000 and at one time belonged to the paper’s investigative unit. One of his biggest stories at the paper was related to the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake. Watanabe heard from a source that a government official had confided that commercial airplanes were stranded midair for hours immediately after the disaster.

Watanabe followed the lead and spent almost eight months talking to experts and obtaining public records via the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). He eventually found that 86 passenger and other jets were stuck in the air for some time above Haneda and Narita airports on March 11, 2011, because they were denied landing permission at other airports.

What is more, 14 of those planes sent out emergency alerts due to critically low levels of fuel.

Watanabe said he was surprised at the response from the transport ministry and airlines, who seemed to suggest all was good because no accidents occurred.

“A lot of people write reaction stories based on what has already happened because it is easy,” said Watanabe. “But that’s not right. We have to sound the alarm before a disaster happens so we can reform the system before it’s too late.”

Despite his passion for journalism, he was eventually removed from the investigative unit. He said he also became disillusioned after hearing Asahi President Masataka Watanabe declare publicly that the company’s future hinged on its real estate business, which it was hoped would offset losses from dwindling newspaper subscriptions.

Watanabe, who is not related to the president, left the Asahi, where he earned roughly ¥10 million a year, and launched the Waseda Chronicle. He and his team, comprising 10 professional journalists, go unpaid. Watanabe is currently relying on his savings.

“You have to be crazy to do it,” he said. “But it is similar to how actors continue to act while making a living by doing part-time jobs.”

Japan’s press freedom has always been shaky, but it has suffered further setbacks under the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Experts say self-censorship has become pervasive, and some news organizations try not to report on issues that might antagonize the government.

Another blow is the special secrecy law of 2013, which criminalized whistleblowing and leaking of state-designated secrets by government employees and investigative journalists.

“Weak legal protection, the newly adopted Specially Designated Secrets Act and persistent government pressure for ‘neutrality’ and ‘fairness’ appear to be producing high levels of self-censorship,” David Kaye, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression, said last year.

The country’s press freedom ranking sank to 72 out of 180 countries in 2016, down from 61 the year before, according to Reporters Without Borders.

At the same time, Japan has a long history of investigative journalism.

One of the most well-known examples is the financial scandal involving then-Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka in the mid-1970s. After reporter Takashi Tachibana published an in-depth piece on Tanaka’s extensive financial network in the monthly Bungei Shunju in 1974, Tanaka was subsequently grilled at news conferences and eventually forced to resign.

In 1988, The Asahi Shimbun also ran a scoop about a bribery scandal involving Recruit, a major human resources company. The story led to the resignation of many prominent politicians and was said to be the biggest post-World War II corporate corruption scandal to hit Japan.

More recently, in 1999, Kiyoshi Shimizu, a reporter at the now-defunct magazine Focus, exposed the fact that Saitama police officers ignored requests for help from Shiori Kano, who had been stalked by her ex-boyfriend and was subsequently murdered on a street by men whom the ex-boyfriend hired. The journalist identified the men who fatally stabbed her before the police did.

Although there are more notable cases like this, Japanese reporters often are criticized both at home and abroad for their reliance on the kisha club (press club) system.

The authorities give press club reporters neatly packaged explanatory documents that detail what’s expected in upcoming political events, such as bilateral summit talks, hoping that the reporters will report along official lines. The Japan Times is also a member of numerous kisha clubs, including at the Prime Minister’s Office and the Diet, as well as both ruling and opposition parties.

Masayuki Takada, a former Hokkaido Shimbun reporter who led a team that investigated an off-the-books money scandal involving the Hokkaido Prefectural Police between 2003 and 2005, said government officials see newspaper reporters as “cute poodles.”

“They pat us and give us what they consider a scoop,” said Takada.

Takada is against the idea of press clubs getting cozy with the government. He urges the clubs to open up their memberships to freelance reporters to send a message that they are watching the government.

Yoichiro Tateiwa is another deserter of a mainstream news organization who launched his own nonprofit investigative organization called iAsia. The former NHK reporter focuses on analyzing public records such as political funding reports.

“There is so much information out there that is public but underutilized,” said Tateiwa. “I think both televisions and newspapers have been overlooking it.”

Tateiwa was involved in the so-called Panama Papers investigation, in which an international consortium of journalists analyzed 11.5 million leaked financial and legal files that showed how the rich and famous exploit offshore accounts. He said that investigative reporting did not have to be a grandiose undertaking, but could be as simple as just checking public records.

Tateiwa left NHK in December 2016 because he felt that his way of pursuing the truth did not make the public broadcaster happy.

At NHK, he discovered through the FOIA that 90 percent of the contracts awarded by the Environment Ministry had not gone through proper bidding processes. Awarding government contracts without bidding is prohibited under law. Yet after the revelations, NHK, which was engaged in similar practices, came under fire in the Diet, putting it in an awkward position.

“My reporting created a huge controversy within the organization. They did not give me credit; rather, they saw me as a nuisance,” said Tateiwa.

Like Watanabe’s Waseda Chronicle, the biggest problem for iAsia is funding. Since its launch, iAsia has raked in an average of ¥1 million a year, which is just enough to pay its deputy editor-in-chief. Tateiwa himself remains unpaid.

“We really have to start canvassing for donations from superwealthy businesspeople in Japan so that they give us the ¥1 million they usually spend in one night at a hostess club in Ginza,” said Tateiwa.

Although the experiences of the three investigative reporters are different, they agree on two things. Big news organizations, with their brands and credibility, have certain advantages in pursuing investigative journalism, but they tend to be on the fence about subjects that present a conflict of interest.

They also agree that news organizations should stop competing for scoops. What journalism needs now is industry-wide collaboration in the same way the International Consortium of Investigative Journalism dealt with the Panama Papers, they say.

“The era of individual news organizations doing their own reporting is over,” said Takada, who will become a professor at Tokyo City University starting in April.

“Japan cannot have a ProPublica as long as there is a system whereby newspaper companies only run stories by their staff writers or wire services they subscribe to.”

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