GENEVA – A U.N. rights expert who visited Japan last year noted “significant worrying signals” for the country’s freedom of expression and opinion in a report released Tuesday in Geneva.
The lack of debate over historical events, restrictions on access to information justified on national security grounds and government pressure on media “require attention lest they undermine Japan’s democratic foundations,” said David Kaye, U.N. special rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression.
The report, to be presented to the U.N. Human Rights Council in June, is the result of the first research ever on freedom of expression in Japan conducted by a U.N. special rapporteur.
The Japanese government voiced regret over the report, which is nonbinding, and pledged to continue with dialogue with the United Nations to clear up the misunderstanding.
Kaye aired concerns about the contentious secrecy law for the prevention of leaks of state secrets that took effect in 2014.
Under the law, civil servants or others who leak designated secrets could face up to 10 years in prison, and those who instigate leaks, including journalists, could be subject to prison terms of up to five years.
While welcoming government efforts to clarify the four specific categories under which information may be designated as secret — defense, diplomacy, prevention of specified harmful activities and prevention of terrorist activities — Kaye warned that “specific subcategories remain overly broad” and thus involve the risk of being arbitrarily applied.
Regarding government pressure on media, Kaye raised concerns over the broadcasting law and particularly its Article 4, which provides the basis for the government to suspend broadcasting licenses if TV stations are not “politically fair.”
Kaye said that the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications “should not be in the position of determining what is fair.”
“Government evaluation of such broadly stated norms would lead to deterrence of the media’s freedom to serve as a watchdog, if it is not already creating such disincentives to reporting,” he added.
“We regret to find the report fails to fully reflect the Japanese government’s positions even though we provided thorough explanations (to the U.N.),” Koichi Hagiuda, deputy chief Cabinet secretary, told a news conference in Tokyo on Wednesday.
“We will keep up dialogue so the circumstances of our country can be properly understood,” Hagiuda said. “We are ready to give the U.N. council a full explanation.”
Kaye also questioned a draft proposal for a constitutional amendment that was compiled by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party in 2012.
The LDP draft keeps Article 21 which says: “Freedom of assembly and association as well as speech, press and all other forms of expression are guaranteed.”
The report said, however, the party plans to add a new paragraph that reads: “engaging in activities with the purpose of damaging the public interest or public order, or associating with others for such purposes, shall not be recognized.”
“This broadly-worded provision would open the door to limitations on expression that could be inconsistent with” the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the report said.
Kaye criticized the government’s influence over school textbooks, saying members of the Textbook Authorization Research Council are ultimately appointed by the education ministry.
“Government influence over how textbooks treat the reality of the crimes committed during the Second World War undermines the public’s right to know and its ability to grapple with and understand its past,” Kaye said.
He noted in particular the gradual disappearance from textbooks of the issue of “comfort women,” the Japanese euphemism for girls and young women who were forced to work in Japanese military brothels during World War II. The issue was first introduced in textbooks in 1997.
While all seven 1997 junior high school history textbooks took up the issue, no description was included in textbooks from 2012 to 2015 and only one mentioned it in 2016.
In connection with the protection of freedom of press, the report pointed out that Japan lacks any organization or union that can defend journalists from pressure and threats.
“They (journalists) expressed fear that management would retaliate against them for raising their voices,” it said. “Nor does any press council independently self-regulate across all areas of journalism.”
The cliquish kisha club system continues to prevent freelance and foreign journalists from having access to complete information, it said.
Kaye, professor of law at the University of California, Irvine, specializes in international human rights law and international humanitarian law. He was appointed as rapporteur by the Human Rights Council in August 2014.