Japan’s journalists, editors and broadcasters — indeed, representatives of all of the popular media — received a stunning surprise from the Osaka High Court last week. In a historic decision with potentially far-reaching consequences, the presiding judge overturned a lower-court ruling that had ordered a magazine publisher to pay 2.5 million yen in damages for printing the name and photograph of a 19-year-old male found guilty of stabbing to death a 5-year-old girl and seriously injuring two people in 1998. Now 21 years old and serving an 18-year prison sentence, the man had claimed that the monthly magazine violated Article 61 of the Juvenile Law and infringed his right to privacy. He appealed to the High Court for increased compensation.

Presiding Judge Makoto Nemoto not only disagreed, he carefully spelled out his reasons for doing so. Saying that Article 61 “is not intended to guarantee that minors who have committed crimes will not have their names published or reported,” he rejected the man’s claim for 22 million yen, ruling that the article in the reliable monthly was not illegal since it was in the public interest, the details of the case were accurately reported and the youthful offender’s name was already widely known in the area where the crime occurred. The judge thus decreed that the article could not be considered to have interfered with his rehabilitation.

Perhaps most surprising was Judge Nemoto’s noting that Article 61 lacks any penalty clause and his statement that it thus cannot be interpreted as superseding the freedom of expression guaranteed by the Constitution. Some commentators have voiced fears that his ruling threatens to unleash a torrent of sensational reporting on crimes of violence by minors, in particular the growing number of assaults and killings perpetrated by teenage youths, often for pittances in “amusement” money. The frequent excesses of the country’s less reputable tabloid newspapers, pictorial magazines and television “wide shows” point to this real possibility, but early reactions from the media suggest that considerable restraint will still be shown in reporting the personal details of juvenile criminals.

When it is not, media watchdog organizations must be called on to take disciplinary action. It has long been tacitly accepted by editors and publishers, as well as the legal profession, that while Article 61 of the 1949 law prohibits only reporting the names of minors charged with crimes and such details as would make them readily identifiable, it also effectively bars publication of their photographs. The purpose of the restrictions, of course, is to enable the rehabilitation of youthful offenders. Respect for the clause has not always been so widespread. In the chaotic early postwar years, when crime was rampant, many publications had no hesitation in reporting the names of minors charged with breaking the law.

It was not until 1958, following the inflamed reporting about the killing of a high school girl by an underage youth, reporting that regularly included his name and photo, that the Justice Ministry raised objections to the media circus. Shortly thereafter, the Newspaper Publishers and Editors Association of Japan, settled on a policy of voluntarily adhering to Article 61 at all times. It risks being overlooked in much of the comment on the Osaka High Court’s decision that in his ruling the judge said as long as media reports respect the spirit of the article, they do not infringe on the privacy of the juvenile involved.

Protection of the right to privacy, even that of juveniles found guilty of serious crimes, must be ensured, of course, and every effort must be made to encourage their rehabilitation and return to society. The bereaved parents of murdered children, who have been left almost totally in the dark concerning details of the convicted killers, understandably view the court’s ruling in a different light, however. Obviously they welcome the possibility of learning at last who took the lives of their children.

Lawyers and groups representing crime victims have long complained that police and prosecutors here often seem more concerned with protecting the rights of criminals than those of their often traumatized victims. Proposed revisions in the Code of Criminal Procedure recommended by the Justice Ministry and soon to be considered by the Diet would go some way toward rectifying that. Every citizen of any age has certain inalienable rights and the media must continue to honor the intention of the Juvenile Law. The Osaka High Court ruling has shown, however, that blind adherence to the letter of the law need not always be in the public interest.

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