Communications Minister Yoshihide Suga’s order on Friday that the international shortwave radio service of NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corp.) devote more of its broadcast coverage to the past abduction of Japanese nationals by North Korean agents could open the door to government interference in news reporting. It could also harm the credibility of NHK news reports, leading people overseas to regard the public broadcaster as a mere propaganda organ of the Japanese government.

On Wednesday the Radio Regulatory Council gave the green light to Mr. Suga’s plan to issue the order. It is regrettable that the council supported the minister’s plan after just one meeting, without listening to opinions from people concerned.

Although NHK mainly operates on subscription fees paid by the public, its international shortwave radio service, offered in 22 languages, will receive 2.25 billion yen in fiscal 2006 from government coffers. And Article 33 of the Broadcast Law authorizes the communications minister to order NHK to cover designated items in its program broadcasts.

Out of respect for freedom of speech, press and other forms of constitutionally guaranteed expression, past communications ministers refrained from giving specific orders to NHK concerning program content. Mr. Suga’s order greatly deviates from his predecessors’ cautious attitude.

From January to September, NHK broadcast about 2,000 items dealing with North Korea, about 700 of them related to the abduction issue. Since most of these items must have been also broadcast via NHK’s international shortwave radio service, it would be unreasonable for Mr. Suga to conclude that NHK is not giving enough coverage to the issue.

The council endorsed the minister’s order that NHK “be specially mindful of the issue of the abduction of Japanese nationals.” Mr. Suga says he will not interfere with program content. But it is obvious that he has put political pressure on NHK. A revision of the Broadcast Law itself is needed to prevent government intervention in news reporting by broadcasters.

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