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Two pieces of legislation that could restrict the media’s freedom of activities are being debated in the Diet. One bill lays out ground rules for protecting personal data. The other, designed to protect human rights, would create a human rights commission affiliated with the Justice Ministry.

The government attaches great importance to the personal data bill, as it does to the emergency security legislation that is also under parliamentary debate. The Japan Newspapers Publishers and Editors Association (Shinbun Kyokai) and other media groups have issued a statement that the bill could open the way for government interference with the freedom of expression guaranteed by the Constitution.

Indeed, the bill is fraught with problems. The Diet should leave no stone unturned to devise an acceptable system for personal data protection. For that purpose, this measure should be drastically revised. It should perhaps even be abolished and a new bill written.

There is no question that personal data, such as name, age, occupation, family composition and phone number, must be properly protected. The proposed legislation, however, contains potentially restrictive provisions that seem to exceed the need for protection.

One problem, from the standpoint of the media, is that fines and other penalties could be imposed on news organizations even though, in principle, punitive rules would not apply to them. Academic and research organizations, religious organizations and political groups also would be excluded.

Businesses that handle personal data would be required to (1) limit its use to specific purposes, (2) acquire it properly, (3) assure its accuracy, (4) keep it safe, and (5) allow for involvement by the people with whom it originated. These principles would impose legally binding obligations on them, such as preventing release of any data on a person to a third party without that person’s consent.

Violations of these legal obligations would prompt the Cabinet minister in charge to take disciplinary actions, such as corrective recommendations and orders. If these actions were ignored, penalties would be imposed. In other words, such violations would constitute illegal acts that could entail the payment of compensation under the Civil Code.

The obligation to obtain a person’s consent for release of data could seriously undermine reporting activities. For example, reporting a corruption scandal involving a politician would become practically impossible if the politician, citing the above obligation, objected to the printing or broadcasting of the story. Such a requirement is as unrealistic as it is unreasonable.

Another problem is the fuzzy legal coverage of news organizations. Academic, religious and political activities are governed by law. Political groups, for instance, are regulated by the campaign finance law. But there is no law governing news organizations, with the exception of broadcasters. So it is unclear which minister is in charge of news organizations, or who will control what.

In addition, the bill in question calls for the creation of private oversight groups comprising businesses that handle more than a certain amount of personal data. This proposal is also problematic. Such groups, says the government, will be organized voluntarily to settle complaints and protect such information. In effect, however, they will come under government influence. It is difficult to see how such organizations will attract many members.

There is no doubt about the urgent need for legislation that protects personal data, considering the international development of corporate activity. However, it is wrong to include rules for media regulation in such legislation. In the European Union, it should be noted, journalism and art are not subject to regulation under such a law.

It is true that the media often exceeds the limits of decency, as illustrated by the often callous reporting of victims of crimes and accidents. That is very regrettable. But remedial action should be left primarily to voluntary efforts by the media, not to government regulations. In fact, all types of media — newspapers, magazines, broadcasts — are now building an effective system of self-regulation.

The human rights bill also needs a wholesale review. In particular, the proposed human rights commission should be restructured so that it will become truly independent from the government, which itself could commit rights violations. This bill, too, poses basic problems for the media. Along with the personal data bill, it should be drastically revised through active debates inside and outside the Diet.

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