U.N. expert Kaye fires back at Tokyo's criticism of freedom of expression report

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

A United Nations expert on Friday defended his report on significant threats to freedom of expression in Japan as factually accurate, rebutting the Japanese government’s assertions that his views are based on “hearsay information.”

“I feel very confident based on the work we’ve done and the fact-checking we did that the facts in the report are accurate,” David Kaye, the U.N.-appointed special rapporteur on freedom of expression, told a news conference in Tokyo.

Kaye’s visit to Tokyo coincided with the release of his report, which sheds light on a raft of threats endangering media independence and free speech in Japan. The threats range from the well known kisha (reporter) club system to state influence over history education and the 2014 state secrecy law, which critics warn could be used to intimidate journalists into self-censorship.

The report, which is slated to be submitted to the U.N. Human Rights Council in June, is based on Kaye’s first investigation into Japanese freedom of expression last year. He interviewed a wide range of government officials, NGO representatives and journalists to compile it.

Friday’s rebuttal was a response to government criticism of Kaye’s report that said most of his views are “based on hearsay information or assumptions and do not show any verification of the details of related information.”

Kaye said it is now up to Tokyo to decide what to do.

“We may have disagreements with the government over interpretation of those facts, interpretation of the law, interpretation of the risks that might be posed to freedom of expression,” the University of California law professor said. But at the end of the day, the report has no legally binding power and is left “in the hands of the government.”

“Our hope is always to engage in a dialogue with the government, not to engage in an adversarial relationship,” he said.

Kaye also demanded more respect from Tokyo, which recently made light of U.N. rapporteur on the right to privacy Joseph Cannataci’s critique of the conspiracy bill, describing him as operating in a “private capacity” and “not speaking on behalf of the U.N.”

“Professor Cannataci, like myself, is independent,” Kaye said.

At the same time, he said, they are formally appointed by the Human Rights Council of the U.N. and mandated to make evaluations of domestic law and practices. In this regard, their views “deserve certain kind of respect — at least a certain kind of consideration, because we’re giving our recommendations in the spirit of good faith, constructive criticism,” he said.

Regarding freedom of speech, the professor repeated his concerns about the kisha club system, noting that while it allows mainstream media to easily approach government officials, it also effectively discriminates against independent and foreign journalists by restricting or outright denying them the same access.

The entrenched system has resulted in mainstream coverage of government affairs descending into “access journalism” that “undermines the ability and willingness of journalists to conduct hard-hitting investigative journalism” under the threat of losing the privileged membership.

The fact that the regulation of broadcast media is handled by the government, and that the commercial television networks are tied to major dailies, does nothing to curb this trend, he said.

“All of these things, together combined, make me very concerned about the nature of media independence in this country,” he said.

In this situation, the Japanese media are prone to self-censorship even under “modest pressure,” which in turn results in the public not taking what the government is saying, or doing, seriously.

The government’s view is “not always tested in the environment of independent media that prizes investigative journalism, prizes hard questions, prizes criticism. In the absence of that kind of criticism and investigation, the government position seems untested,” Kaye said.

“It’s in the government’s interest to open up the avenues for investigation and criticism so that its own views can be tested against that criticism. Without that, there will always be doubts.”