National

Japanese news conferences illustrate government's struggle to grasp social distancing

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff writer

As he addressed the nation in an emergency news conference just over a week ago, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe couldn’t have set a more unconvincing example of how to engage in social distancing.

After all, he was speaking from a conference room in the Prime Minister’s Office filled with officials, security guards and a gaggle of photographers, not to mention a group of reporters sitting elbow to elbow in the entire front row.

Many watching the live broadcast couldn’t help but notice the irony playing out beyond the screen, taking to social media to point out how his news conference was the exact embodiment of the “Three Cs” — closed, crowded and close-range conversations — that Abe was urging the public to eschew.

With the COVID-19 pandemic showing no signs of abating in Japan, government and ministry officials are scrambling to rectify the high-risk nature of their news conferences.

Some have reduced seating capacity, booked more spacious rooms and even installed thermographic cameras to bar reporters with fevers. But others have been less successful.

With many of these news conferences also hosted by the reporters who cover each entity, officials say they lack the authority to arbitrarily restrict their access and are struggling to find common ground with the media, who sometimes sacrifice safety for accessibility.

Among those mired in the quandary is the health ministry, which is on the frontline of the battle against the novel coronavirus.

The last few months have seen minister Katsunobu Kato frequently speak in close proximity to reporters in what are known as burasagari (stand-up interviews), and his briefings take place in a packed conference room.

Teruo Yamakawa, a public relations official for the health ministry, admitted Kato’s news conferences are a poor example of social distancing. The ministry, he said, is about to complete negotiations with its kisha kurabu (press club) to hash out potential solutions, such as limiting the number of reporters who attend.

Yamakawa said it once proposed relocating the minister’s news conference to a larger room, only to elicit fierce resistance from broadcasters who said the absence of needed technical facilities in the venue would prevent them from televising Kato’s remarks live.

But given the health ministry’s position as an advocate of social distancing, “we can no longer let this situation continue,” Yamakawa said. “We’re exploring the best possible balance between preserving media’s reporting opportunity and preventing the risk of infections.”

The Prime Minister’s Office is in a similar dilemma. Ahead of Abe’s address the other day, the office said it issued a statement urging those in the PMO press club to forgo attendance if they feel unwell and sit one seat apart from each other “if there is enough room to do so.”

For state events such as the special COVID-19 task force meetings chaired by Abe, the government has imposed stricter guidelines that urged the media to wear masks and cap their numbers, a public relations official for the Prime Minister’s Office said.

But as far as news conferences are concerned, making mere “requests” and trusting media to follow them is the best officials can do to ensure social distancing, the official said.

“If we restricted the number of reporters granted access to news conferences, that would be seen as us limiting their reporting opportunity. That would be a problem,” he said.

Reporters who routinely cover Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga’s twice-daily briefings took what appeared to be a belated step toward social distancing on Friday when they sat at least one seat apart from each other. Until the previous day, they had paid little heed to doing so when sitting down, video archives on the PMO website show.

Overseas, however, reporters are taking the issue more seriously.

The White House Correspondents’ Association has reportedly voted to boot one outlet from its rotation for seats in the coveted briefing room after its reporter repeatedly flouted the social-distancing rules that had been put in place to deal with the pandemic.

While some government organizations in Japan remain unable to take decisive steps, others have been more proactive in reaching out to the media and forming a consensus on how to balance media access with safety.

In Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike’s regular briefing Friday, some seats were marked as unavailable to prevent reporters from sitting next to each other. They were also asked to wear masks.

The reduction in seating capacity was originally proposed by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government to its press club, which mulled over the suggestion and eventually complied, Kazuya Taguchi, a public relations official for the metro government, said.

On the same day, the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry took the rare step of having security guards use thermographic cameras so no one with a fever would be able to attend farm minister Taku Eto’s regular briefing.

The Defense Ministry, meanwhile, was one of the quickest to recognize the need to rid news conferences of the Three Cs.

Last month, the ministry, after discussions with its press club, relocated Defense Minister Taro Kono’s news conference to a room about four times larger, allowing reporters to sit about two meters apart.

“Gov. Koike has repeatedly requested that an overlap of the Three Cs be avoided, but I realized the previous news conference room resembled that very condition,” Kono said. “So we wanted to do this in a bigger room.”

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