The government was to have submitted a human-rights protection bill during the most recent session of the Diet. Various reasons are cited for the bill’s failure to reach the Diet floor, including government leaders’ obsession with other hot-button issues such as postal-service reform. Still, legislation to protect victims against discrimination, cruel treatment and other human-rights violations remain a vital issue in Japan.

The bill faced strong criticism partly because it contained a controversial clause suggesting the need to control mass media activities. Although the “media clause” was to be frozen even if the bill became law, the fear persists that the clause could be “defrosted” in the future and used to apply pressure on reporters and editors, thus infringing on freedom of the press.

The planned bill also provided for establishing a special commission to protect human rights as an extra-ministerial body under the Justice Ministry. Members would be appointed by the prime minister with Diet approval. This raised an important question: Since human-rights violations have often been reported in prisons and detention centers for immigration law violators, which are operated under the authority of the ministry, could such a commission function objectively?

The bill failed to reach the Diet floor not because the government consumed too much time considering the bill’s flaws but because the ruling Liberal Democratic Party was divided over sensitive questions such as how to define the “violations” proscribed by the bill.

The government should now draft an improved bill that will be more conducive to protecting human rights. The “media clause” should be deleted, and the commission should be established in a manner ensuring that it remains free from influence by any government ministry or agency.

The bill, a response to a 1998 call by the U.N. committee for the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, is intended to protect people’s rights. The “media clause” was inserted in view of the mass media’s overheated coverage of sensational crimes — in which reporters have not paid enough attention to the feelings and privacy rights of the people involved. The media must strive to avoid excessively heated news coverage, as often happens in reporting sensational crimes. In fact, the Japan Newspaper Publishers and Editors Association, in 2001, set down guidelines on this matter and, in 2002, set up a committee to deal with it.

Under the clause, for example, reporters who frequently visit the homes or offices of politicians or bureaucrats in connection with an investigation of corruption could be charged with engaging in illegal activities that constitute a human-rights violation.

This clause is problematic, for example, if the investigation that led to the disclosure of the scandal involving the Japan Dental Association is considered. The Japan Dental Political Federation, a JDA political arm, had made a suspicious contribution of 100 million yen to the Hashimoto faction of the LDP, the largest faction within the party. Former Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto was found to have received the 100 million yen check and former Chief Cabinet Secretary Kenzo Muraoka was indicted.

If the “media clause” is put into effect, it could have the effect of restraining the efforts of reporters and editors, thus leading to a restriction of people’s right to know.

The confusion about the bill within the LDP centered on two points: One was the fear that the definition of human-rights violations in the bill was so vague that its practical interpretation could become too broad. Further detailed discussion of examples are needed on this point. The second point was the complaint that the bill did not restrict the nationality of people serving as human-rights protection commissioners in local communities. Some LDP members argued that people of some nationalities, as well as those close to particular organizations such as the North Korea-affiliated General Association of Korean Residents in Japan (Chongryun), might act to promote parochial interests if they became local commissioners.

For people to become local commissioners, though, they would need recommendations from the mayors of municipalities; moreover, their activities would be supervised by the central human-rights protection commission. The Justice Ministry says that, due to this mechanism, it is unlikely that foreign nationals would fill the seats of commissioners in a municipality. This sort of worry is understandable, but unacceptable.

The bill apparently put too much priority on tightening the grip of law and order. It contained clauses whose application appears likely to kill one bird in order to save another. The thinking of “media clause” proponents is a typical example. The government must not lose sight of the big picture.

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