National / Media | MEDIA MIX

Are press activities being undermined in Japan?

by Philip Brasor

Contributing Writer

The Foreign Ministry ordered freelance journalist Kosuke Tsuneoka to surrender his passport after he tried to leave Japan on Feb. 2 for Yemen, which is in the midst of a civil war. The ostensible reason for the order is that Tsuneoka in January attempted to travel to Yemen through Oman, which refused him entry, and the law states that the Japanese government can seize the passport of any citizen who is said to be inadmissible by a foreign country.

Tsuneoka has said publicly that he believes the Oman incident is a convenient excuse for the government to prevent him from carrying out journalistic activities. Because of the war, Japan has listed Yemen as an unsafe country. Tsuneoka had asked to interview staff at Doctors Without Borders and the United Nations World Food Program about the relief organizations’ activities, since few mainstream Japanese news outlets have done so. He obtained a visa from Yemen for those purposes.

The Foreign Ministry has not commented on Tsuneoka’s allegations, although it is no secret that it doesn’t want reporters going to war zones. In 2015, it confiscated the passport of a photojournalist who had planned to cover Syria.

During a Feb. 5 interview with “Keyaki Hills,” a program on Abema TV, Tsuneoka said that in January, prior to leaving, he checked with an acquaintance in Oman’s immigration office who confirmed he was not on any “blacklist.” However, when he arrived, he was barred from entering the country. When he boarded the airplane to leave Oman, airline employees told Tsuneoka that someone from the Japanese Embassy had already been there. Usually, embassy staff come to airports to assist Japanese nationals in trouble, but this person apparently didn’t talk to Tsuneoka at all.

On his second attempt, he planned to avoid going through Oman, but after he arrived at Haneda airport in Tokyo, the pre-registered departure kiosk did not accept his passport and an on-site immigration officer handed him a document by fax from the Foreign Ministry, which ordered Tsuneoka to surrender it. The document was printed except for the date, which was filled in by hand and indicated the order had been issued that day. Although he had tried to keep his trip to Yemen a secret, he received a telephone call from the police the day before he left asking where he was.

Tsuneoka is considering whether to sue the government in a bid to restore his passport. His stated purpose in visiting Yemen is to report on the food situation in the country, which is why he approached the two relief organizations. Reporters Without Borders has said that Tsuneoka’s work in this regard is very important, but the government seems to care more about avoiding problems than it does about Japanese people learning about the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, where over 10,000 people are estimated to have died and thousands more are starving.

Another incident reinforcing the idea that the government undermines press activities happened in late December, when the Cabinet Office warned its press club in writing about “questions at odds with facts” asked by a certain member during daily news conferences. The statement is believed to refer to Tokyo Shimbun reporter Isoko Mochizuki, who is known for her relentless interrogation style. On Dec. 26, Mochizuki grilled Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga on the construction of a controversial U.S. air base in the bay off Henoko, Okinawa Prefecture.

Mochizuki asked Suga to comment on the use of “red soil” in landfill materials. Red soil is less expensive than rock, but it’s also harmful to marine life and cannot be used legally in Okinawa for such purposes. Suga replied that everything being done at Henoko was legal. Not satisfied with this answer, Mochizuki persisted and was eventually cut off by the moderator.

According to a Feb. 6 analysis of the matter in the online magazine Litera, the Cabinet Office took issue with the unnamed reporter’s question in its statement to the press club because, according to the Cabinet Office, it was based on false information, though the use of red soil had already been covered by a couple of media outlets. Mochizuki herself wrote that the Okinawa Defense Bureau placed an order to purchase landfill whose content “other than rock” was “40 percent or less,” and the Okinawa Prefectural government is now calling on the Defense Ministry to look into the landfill data.

As Litera points out, it’s natural for the government to argue over the validity of information included in a query, but Suga dismissed the question outright, thus disregarding the public’s right to know. For some reason, the press club letter didn’t come to light until it was covered by the monthly magazine Sentaku on Feb. 1. Then the Japan Federation of Newspaper Workers’ Unions officially protested it. The leader of the federation is Akira Minami of the Asahi Shimbun, who, like Mochizuki, is known for his dogged reporting style.

The Cabinet Office press club has since said it will not restrict any reporter’s newsgathering activities but, according to journalist Ryusaku Tanaka, writing in his blog on Feb. 4, the Cabinet Office press club may distrust Mochizuki even more than the Cabinet Office does, since the press club feels that Mochizuki’s adversarial approach makes its job more difficult. Tanaka claims that even other Tokyo Shimbun reporters resent Mochizuki, and speculates that she may be transferred out of her assignment at the prime minister’s residence in August. The problem for Tokyo Shimbun is that Mochizuki appears to be popular with its subscribers.

In his Feb. 10 column in, of all places, the Tokyo Shimbun, Hosei University professor Jiro Yamaguchi blasted the Cabinet Office for dodging the truth in the matter of forged documents and statistics while at the same time accusing reporters of promoting fake news. Yamaguchi called for all media outlets to confront the government head-on. As it stands, only a few people such as Mochizuki and Tsuneoka do that, and without the support of their colleagues in deed as well as word, the authorities will always be able to ignore them.