On July 19, NHK’s morning information program, “Asaichi,” featured a very special guest. Hiroshi Kume is one of the most important figures in the history of Japanese media, initially as a popular announcer in the 1970s and early ’80s, but mainly as the anchor of TV Asahi’s ground-breaking news show “News Station” from 1985 to 2004. Before “News Station,” Japanese TV news was dry and a bit intimidating. Kume not only brought it down to earth, he broadened its scope by injecting commentary that made reports relevant to viewers. The reason his appearance was so surprising is that NHK arguably represents everything about TV he doesn’t like.

He was characteristically blunt on “Asaichi,” which is broadcast live, saying he still believes NHK should be privatized, even though that would likely mean the destruction of existing commercial broadcasters. But as long as the government controls NHK’s budget and upper executive choices, the public broadcaster can never be independent of state authority. Only when NHK breaks free of that relationship can Japan call itself “an advanced country,” he said.

However, government influence over the press goes beyond its reach into public corporations such as NHK. In June, as a tie-up with the opening of the feature film “Shimbun Kisha” (“The Journalist”), the Huffington Post convened a symposium of media figures to discuss “power and media.”

One of the participants of the symposium was Tokyo Shimbun reporter Isoko Mochizuki, who inspired the film. Mochizuki has become a thorn in the side of the current administration for her style of questioning at Cabinet Office news conferences, which some fellow journalists have called relentless — and not always in a positive way. A recent New York Times profile describes Mochizuki’s methodology as being normal journalistic practice in most countries, while in Japan it’s considered almost radical.

During the discussion, former New York Times Tokyo bureau chief Martin Fackler explained “access journalism,” meaning reporters keeping their relations with government cordial so as to guarantee access to people and information. Although access journalism is common in places such as Washington, in Japan it’s normalized through the press club system, which assigns reporters from certain media outlets to each government organ. This system leads to relationships that often seem at odds with the purpose of journalism. Officials for the most part expect to receive questions before interviews and sometimes even demand to approve the content of articles before they are published. If they don’t get what they want, they might limit the particular media outlet’s access.

Mochizuki also talked about the Cabinet Intelligence and Research Office, commonly referred to as “Naicho,” an organization that former Vice Minister of Education Kihei Maekawa, who was also a participant in the symposium, says is connected to the National Police Agency. The Cabinet Intelligence and Research Office, according to Mochizuki, puts pressure on those the government thinks are making their job difficult, including reporters. Mochizuki said she was once told by a colleague that she was being “investigated” by the office, the implication being that such intelligence was designed to make her back off on her questioning.

Media confronts power and vice versa. It happens everywhere. The issue in Japan is how much agency reporters exercise in upholding the responsibilities of a free press. From 2013 to 2019, Japan’s ranking on the World Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders has dropped from 53rd to 67th, whereas South Korea’s ranking has gone from 50th to 41st over the same period.

The 2017 South Korean documentary “Criminal Conspiracy,” which was released in Japan last December, gives some indication of why that happened. The movie covers nine years of relations between the government and the press from 2008. Former South Korean President Lee Myung-bak didn’t like the way the country’s two public broadcasters, Korean Broadcasting System (KBS) and Munhwa Broadcasting Corp. (MBC), were covering his administration.

KBS reporting led to the resignation of two Cabinet ministers, while MBC inflamed public outrage over beef imports from the United States that were negotiated by the government. In the end, Lee effectively forced the heads of the two networks to resign and replaced them with men who supported the government line. Unionized reporters rebelled strongly, resulting in their dismissal, reassignment or even arrest.

The entire story was recorded as it happened by the reporters affected. There are scenes of violence between police and demonstrators, humiliating arrests of journalists and broadcast employees, face-to-face confrontations (an inordinate number seem to take place in packed elevators) between aggressive reporters and officials from either the government or the TV industry.

As a result, “Criminal Conspiracy” has an immediacy that few documentaries can boast. Press freedoms erode before the viewer’s eyes, and then are gradually, painstakingly rebuilt. Matters remained in flux until the Sewol ferry sinking during the administration of President Park Geun-hye. The government reportedly tried to cover up the extent of the disaster, and the documentary even goes as far as to suggest that their control of the news may have actually cost lives, since there was little media pressure to accelerate rescue efforts.

Now, under the more liberal President Moon Jae-in, press freedoms have been restored, but mainly because the impulse to publish the truth remained strong even as repressions waxed and waned. For sure, much of this passion was fueled by resentment, but that’s often the way this kind of dynamic plays out.

Since “Criminal Conspiracy” is a South Korean production, it lacks the historical context that would make the story more meaningful to outsiders. South Korea was a military dictatorship until 1987. Its democracy was hard won. Japan’s was more or less thrust on it by the United States after World War II. In that regard, South Korean reporters may have a closer understanding than their Japanese counterparts of what’s really at stake.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
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