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There is a strong social trend toward protecting privacy. A milestone will be the enforcement of the Private Information Protection Law beginning in April. But the government is apparently taking advantage of this trend and people’s distrust of the media — due to often sensationalistic crime coverage — to control the flow of information.

The government draft of a basic plan for implementing the law, enacted in 2004, to provide assistance to crime victims and their family members contains a problematic clause. It says that the police should “comprehensively consider” the need to protect crime victims’ privacy, on one hand, and the public interest in publicizing their names, on the other, so that an announcement of each crime is made in the most appropriate way. This means that the decision on whether to publicly identify crime victims should be left to the judgment of police.

A governmental study group is reported to have decided, in principle, to retain this clause, and the government is set to adopt it at a Cabinet meeting in December. If the draft is adopted as is, the police will have broader discretionary power and it is likely their decisions will become arbitrary.

In the past, police usually publicized the names of crime and accident victims unless it believed that doing so would result in defamation or hamper investigations. These days, police tend to keep secret the identities of crime victims, citing what they say are the victims’ wishes. The idea in the draft will accelerate this trend, making it increasingly difficult for reporters to collect information from crime victims and people close to them.

As a result, reporters will become unable to confirm whether crimes actually took place in the manner that the police have announced. The eventual result will be a weakening of the media’s function as a watchdog over the powers that be.

The Japanese Newspaper Publishers and Editors Association has submitted a written opinion opposing the government draft to the Cabinet Office. The statement represents not only newspapers and news agencies but also broadcast organizations. Calling for the deletion of the clause in question, the statement said the names of crime victims are indispensable for objectively examining and reporting the incidents in which they were involved.

The association said police should release the names of crime victims and the media should decide whether to make them public in their reports. This means that, in principle, the names should be disclosed in news stories when they have social significance. The association also said the media will not disclose the identities when there is danger of harming the victims’ privacy or of causing secondary criminal damage. It also said the media will sincerely talk with crime victims if the victims so desire, and will consult with the police if the police wish to convey messages from crime victims.

In reporting crimes, news organizations carry a heavy responsibility. In collecting news material from crime victims and people close to them, members of the media must demonstrate self-restraint; they must avoid deeds that hurt the feelings of crime victims and refrain from sensationalism. Their news coverage should be in accordance with the basic principle of crime reporting — to help the public share the backgrounds of crimes and to facilitate crime prevention. The media must convince the public that they are trying to contribute to society through their crime reporting.

The trend to hide information is not limited to the police. Since the Private Information Protection Law went into effect, attempts by government ministries and agencies to hide information have become salient. Perhaps they do not properly understand the spirit of the law, or they are overreacting to the law or they simply are deliberately skewing interpretation of the law. For example, the Health, Welfare and Labor Ministry said that, starting next year, it will not disclose the names of people who have passed the state examinations for medical doctors, dentists and nurses. Instead, it will announce only the successful candidates’ test numbers and the names of the places where they have sat for the tests. In principle, the identity of people engaged in professions in which people’s life are at stake and information on public servants should be disclosed.

The government should retract the clause on the handling of the identities of crime victims. It should pay attention to the newspaper association’s statement: “The real names of crime victims are core information to what actually happened in society. Will it be all right to leave the final decision on whether to make them public or not to the police? We have misgivings about a society in which not only the police but also administrative offices control information related to people as they wish.”

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