Enervated by relentless media coverage of his scandal-tainted Cabinet, Shinzo Abe ended his first stint as prime minister in 2007 feeling bullied. Five years later, a vengeful Abe returned to the nation’s helm wiser and stronger — this time, as some note today, as a bully toward the media.
The Abe administration recently terrified the nation’s TV stations by seeking to eviscerate the decades-old Broadcast Act — a move critics say would open the floodgates to forays by internet media companies and possibly “destroy” existing broadcasters long protected by the law.
Experts say the attempt to gut the law adds to the undercurrent of official hostility toward critical coverage, which Abe and his aides have gone to extraordinary lengths to curb and counterattack since his return to power in 2012.
It also reflects Abe’s penchant for the internet and social media. In what some see as an echo of U.S. President Donald Trump, Abe has actively used those channels to spread his views unilaterally and win the hearts of his conservative supporters — who similarly loathe outlets they think are biased against the prime minister.
“What’s happening is Abe’s revenge against the mass media,” said Iwao Osaka, an associate professor of journalism at Komazawa University.
During his first stint in power, Osaka said, “Abe was picked apart by the media when, unlike today, there was no smartphone yet and he had little means of getting his message across on his own terms.
“I think he views himself as a victim of reporting by the media,” he said. “As they say, the bullied never forget those who bullied them.”
Around mid-March, a shock wave reverberated through Japan’s commercial TV stations. Reports swirled that the government was eyeing a drastic overhaul of the broadcast business by stripping away a batch of regulations imposed on TV and radio stations by the law.
That might pave the way for internet-based, video-on-demand platforms — such as Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Hulu — to make significant inroads into TV and threaten or undermine the vested interests of conventional broadcasters.
“If the move is meant to make commercial TV stations unnecessary or dismantle them, I’m of course opposed to it,” Shinji Takeda, president of Tokyo Broadcasting System Television, told a news conference in March.
Among potential changes discussed by the government, according to an internal document obtained by The Japan Times, was the scrapping of Article 4 of the law, which urges broadcasters to keep their programs politically neutral.
Article 4 is largely considered the Japanese equivalent of the now-defunct Fairness Doctrine in the United States, which required political balance in broadcasting.
The view prevails that Abe, jaded by critical coverage in recent months of his favoritism scandals, is seeking to lay the groundwork for the advent of more politically charged TV programs that pitch his beliefs.
Other changes under discussion, according to the document, include abolishing parts of the law that require broadcasters to air programs on news, entertainment and education in a balanced way, as well as keep foreign investment in their businesses below 20 percent.
By doing away with these regulations, the government is considering opening up the broadcast industry to digital media outlets and encouraging competition, with the document concluding, rather menacingly, that commercial TV stations will ultimately become “unnecessary” under the plan.
But Abe’s attempt at deregulation has seemingly hit a snag after antagonizing major broadcasters and, to a lesser extent, some in his Cabinet and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. Alarmed by a recent fall in his Cabinet’s popularity amid the scandals, Abe is now all the more unlikely to risk proposing anything controversial.
“It’s not like we have already decided to do something about Article 4,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said in a recent news conference.
Article 4 has long been a double-edged sword for broadcasters, at times giving those in power an excuse to protest programs they regard as politically unfair.
In November 2014, Teru Fukui, then chief of the LDP’s information bureau, issued a letter of protest to TV Asahi, slamming the way it covered Abenomics on its nightly news program “Hodo Station” as one-sided. Fukui alleged that the show made it look as if Abe’s eponymous economic policies were only benefiting a tiny cohort of the rich.
“Article 4 of the broadcast law stipulates you must present a controversial topic from as many perspectives as possible. But you only focused on some very specific examples,” the letter said.
Fukui’s rebuke of TV Asahi came only days after he and Koichi Hagiuda, another senior LDP lawmaker, similarly released a statement urging major TV stations in Tokyo to keep their reportage on the upcoming Lower House election “fair and neutral.”
In 2016, ex-communications minister Sanae Takaichi said the government is legally authorized to order broadcasters to suspend operations if they continue to air TV programs deemed politically biased, a remark widely perceived as repressing free speech.
Article 4 “gives the government the possibility of oppression against broadcast media,” Dan Rosen, a law professor at Chuo University Law School in Tokyo, said, hailing its elimination as a “realistic move.”
But still, reports that Article 4 may be repealed immediately caused an outpouring of criticism, with experts warning against a resulting rise in fake news and politically polarizing content that could deluge airwaves both with pro- and anti-government statements.
“I believe Abe’s real wish is to see the kind of pro-Abe speech on the internet spread over to the world of broadcast journalism and ultimately create TV programs in favor of his policies,” said Hiroyoshi Sunakawa, a professor of media studies at Rikkyo University.
Such a view was shared by Kenta Yamada, a journalism professor at Senshu University who added that the removal of Article 4 could sow divisions in society.
“It’s possible this will help give rise to ideologically extreme TV shows. Whether they praise or criticize Abe, these programs, once broadcast, could further polarize the public and pit us against each other,” Yamada said.
With Article 4 not only stipulating political fairness but also urging broadcasters to keep their programming factually correct, Sunakawa said its annulment could “lead to an increase in reportage that has no factual basis.”
Traumatized by media
Abe’s apparent wish to change the landscape of the media industry is the latest example of his tendency to control the narrative and his overall intolerance of critical coverage, experts say.
“His basic sentiment is ‘I don’t need traditional broadcasters anymore. All I need is the internet,’ ” Yamada said.
“He has no respect for the media, which play an important role in keeping the powerful in check.”
Abe’s relationship with the mass media is, to say the very least, complicated.
Storming to power in 2006 for the first time, Abe replaced his populist predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, who invented — and adroitly utilized — a twice-daily stand-up interview with reporters in the hallway of the Prime Minister’s Office to effectively communicate his message to millions of viewers beyond the TV screen.
But Koizumi’s mastery of the media had little to do with any systematic strategy but rather reflected his own personal charisma and knack for catchy one-liners. In succeeding the hallway interview practice, Abe tried unsuccessfully to outdo Koizumi, looking directly into the camera while answering questions from reporters so he could, supposedly, “better speak to the public.” His earnest gaze, however, left the public perplexed instead.
As time passed, Abe found the media increasingly turning against him, almost uncontrollably so, with criticism heating up day by day over scandals including mismanaged pensions and the 2007 suicide of then-agriculture minister Toshikatsu Matsuoka, as well as his own ill health.
“Back then, with the iPhone hardly taking off, it was the mass media, or TV, that was the most influential in Japan. There were home pages, yes, but not everybody read them, so Abe had no tools to hit back at what the media were saying,” Osaka of Komazawa University said.
“In a way, I’d say Abe has experienced more ups and downs than Trump in this age of media-driven politics,” he said.
But when he swept back into power five years later, in December 2012, Abe was no longer naive.
One of the first things Abe did upon returning to power was to declare an end to the twice-daily stand-up interview — his anathema. He also abolished a long-standing arrangement with the kisha (press) club in the Prime Minister’s Office that had customarily seen leaders make rotating appearances with each broadcaster. The abolition of the rotation system effectively allowed Abe to select which broadcaster he wanted to appear on.
In another controversial move, Abe appointed those ideologically close to him — such as right-wing novelist Naoki Hyakuta — to NHK’s board of governors in 2013, raising questions about its political neutrality.
What worked further to his advantage was the emergence of social media. By the time he returned to power, Abe had morphed into an active Facebook user, repeatedly complaining about the way TV shows portrayed him and, as he did so, attracting sympathy from supporters online who then joined him in vilifying the media.
“My war with the mass media has started. I will fight my way through it together with your support,” Abe said in his bitter November 2012 post after TBS accidentally ran an image of him in an unrelated report on indecent assault. Abe called the incident part of a “negative campaign” against him ahead of the Lower House election.
Even after re-election, Abe’s Facebook tirades — sometimes via his secretary — continue, targeting outlets such as the liberal Mainichi Shimbun and Asahi Shimbun dailies.
“What Abe is doing is basically to complain about the media on SNS, and egg on his supporters to gang up on them and heap criticism together. . . . The same goes for Trump,” Osaka said.
In one of the most recent examples, Abe, in a February Diet session, nonchalantly admitted to posting a scornful comment about the Asahi Shimbun in a reply to a Facebook post made by a fellow LDP lawmaker. In it, Abe described as “pathetic” the way the daily explained what he said was inaccurate reporting on the Moritomo Gakuen scandal.
“It’s a miserable excuse so common with Asahi. No surprise there,” Abe wrote.
This year even saw Abe make a foray into Instagram, where he posts an array of fairly humanizing pictures showing him posing with pop singers, munching fugu and enjoying a weekend getaway at a kabuki show. He has even concocted the hashtag #abechan, which his supporters hailed as “cute.”
This followed the LDP’s unveiling late last year of cartoon stickers for Line that featured various illustrations of a smiley, itty-bitty Abe.
“The current administration has been voraciously pursuing the development of media tools designed to appeal to a younger generation and spread a positive image about itself,” compared with its predecessors, Ryosuke Nishida, an associate professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology who is author of “Media to Jiminto” (“Media and the LDP”), said.