A senior education ministry official has indicated that whistleblowers involved in the Kake Gakuen scandal could be punished for leaking internal information in violation of the National Public Service Law.

Hiroyuki Yoshiie, a state minister of education, made the remark on Tuesday in response to a question from Upper House member Yuko Mori, of the opposition Liberal Party.

During an Upper House session, Mori asked if the government will protect the whistleblowers that have cast light on alleged government favoritism shown to Kake Gakuen, the Okayama-based school operator chaired by a close friend of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Without directly answering Mori’s question, Yoshiie instead said that, in general, public servants aren’t protected under the whistleblower protection law unless what they are exposing constitutes a violation of some law or ordinance.

If government employees leaked information about “undisclosed administrative processes” without permission from their supervisors, it could be seen as a legal violation of the confidentiality obligation, Yoshiie said.

“My understanding is it could be (a violation) of the National Public Service Law,” he added.

Abe and government officials have repeatedly denied any illegality in the process to approve Kake Gakuen’s application for opening a new veterinary department at a university in Imabari, Ehime Prefecture, the revelations of which have caused a public stir and elicited outrage from opposition lawmakers.

Thus Yoshiie’s remark immediately invited criticism that the government’s intent is to intimidate future whistleblowers or to retaliate against those who have leaked information to media outlets.

“We won’t tolerate (the government) punishing people who should be protected as whistleblowers in the public interest,” Democratic Party leader Renho said on Wednesday.

However, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga tried to play down the remarks, saying Yoshiie was only explaining a general interpretation of the laws, and not explicitly outlining the government’s policy on a specific case.

Yoshiie “just talked about a general theory because he was asked” by Mori during the Upper House session, Suga told a news conference on Wednesday. “There’s nothing more to it.”

Major media outlets recently published stories sourcing multiple anonymous education ministry officials who reportedly authenticated a set of alleged government papers that suggest the Cabinet Office put pressure on the ministry to favor Kake Gakuen.

According to the papers, which were purportedly produced by ministry officials last year, the Cabinet Office cited the intent at “the highest-levels” in the Prime Minister’s Office to urge the education ministry to approve Kake Gakuen’s application.

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