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The Diet debate on media-related legislation has stirred controversy over freedom of expression. The main concern, expressed by legislators from both the ruling and opposition camps, is that it would put unreasonable restraints on the media. Even former members of the government panels that drafted the legislation are calling for changes to the bills.

At issue are two government bills designed to protect personal data and human rights. Originally they were not meant to regulate the media, as a former panelist points out. A thorough review is needed of the proposed clauses that could unduly restrict or prevent reporting activity. Preferably the government should withdraw the bills and draft new ones.

The personal data bill is seriously flawed in three ways: First, it requires those handling personal data to (1) restrict its uses, (2) acquire it properly, (3) use it accurately, (4) keep it safe and (5) make it transparent. The problem is that these ground rules, though not legally binding, could still make media organizations legally liable for noncompliance.

One possibility is that an organization looking into a scandal involving a politician or bureaucrat could be sued for making “improper” use of his or her personal data. To be sure, the bill itself excludes media organizations and other selected groups from any penalty. Still, damage suits could be filed for failing to observe these rules. It should be noted that Western democracies have no such rules for journalism, literature and art.

Second, the minister in charge would have exceedingly strong powers, such as ordering “necessary measures” to correct or cancel coverage. To make matters worse, media organizations would have no formal way to lodge complaints against such measures. Clearly, there is a need to create a fair and reliable mechanism for handling media complaints.

Third, the minister in charge — who might be the chairman of the National Public Safety Commission — would be able to relegate his duties to local government heads and other “implementing agencies.” This means that police organizations nationwide would be granted extensive powers. Those who violated orders could be arrested or searched without warrants.

To overcome these and other problems, private experts and groups have put forward a variety of proposals. For example, a lawyer who helped draft the bill has called for (1) excluding the media from the five ground rules; (2) excluding from the “press” other publishers including those that handle literature and art, as well as free journalists; and (3) consulting the Social Policy Council, a government advisory body, on ministerial orders before they are issued.

The National Liaison Committee of Consumer Organizations has proposed that media compliance be limited to only two of the five principles: accurate use and safe keeping of personal data. The group also says that separate legislation should be established for sectors that require the cautious handling of personal data, such as finance, medicine, welfare, communications and education.

The Society for a Joint Appeal, a writers group, is promoting a basic law stating, among other things, that personal data used for reporting, academic research, and religious and political activity will be excluded. This proposal, as well as those described above, reflect a common concern that the bill as it stands would cause various problems. The Diet should seriously address this concern.

One of the major Japanese newspapers has published a proposed revision to exclude the media from the rule of “transparency,” which would require, among other things, the consent of people to whom the data belong. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has reacted favorably to the proposal. However, such a partial revision falls far short of a fundamental solution.

Regarding the human rights bill, the daily has proposed limiting the scope of relief to rights violations due to “reporting transgressions.” This proposal, too, does not go far enough. The fundamental problem with this bill is that it singles out media damage, along with discrimination and abuse, for special relief.

It is welcome, though, that various changes have been proposed in various circles. The common aim of these proposals is not to secure special privileges for the media and thus put it above the law, but to ensure the diversity of reporting activity as well as freedom of expression. The twin media bills do not serve this purpose in their present form.

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