NHK, Japan’s national broadcaster, is under siege — and with it this country’s commitment to freedom of speech.

Last week, a government regulatory panel approved a ministerial directive that would compel NHK to broadcast information on the abductions of Japanese nationals by North Korea. Indications are that Yoshihide Suga, communications minister, will give the order to NHK soon.

The Oct. 24 evening edition of the Asahi Shinbun quoted the minister as saying, “The greatest hope of [the abductees] awaiting rescue in North Korea lies with the knowledge that their families in Japan, the people of Japan and the government have not abandoned them.” He added that, in his desire to order NHK to air broadcasts about the abductees on shortwave radio, he had “no intention whatsoever of interfering in the content [of what is broadcast] and that freedom of expression and freedom of information must be protected.”

NHK dug its heels in. Toyohiko Harada, executive director-general in charge of broadcasting, asserted NHK’s independence. “We base our choice of programs on our own judgment, from the point of view of journalism,” he said.

By “the point of view of journalism,” he clearly meant “professionalism, not political expediency.”

Since it was established in 1926 on the model of Britain’s BBC Radio — and despite its use for propaganda purposes before and during World War II — NHK has striven to steer a course independent from government policy. Such independence is now guaranteed under broadcasting law; and previous postwar governments have respected the letter and import of this law.

Pernicious example

The fuzzy area in this case lies in the leeway given the communications minister to issue orders regarding information broadcast on NHK’s international service. This leeway is afforded to the government thanks to its subsidizing of NHK — in the case of the shortwave service, to the tune of about 30 percent of its total budget. In other words, you can tell the piper what to play if you’ve paid for a few of the holes to be bored into his pipe.

A more pernicious example of government interference in NHK programming occurred in 2001 — even though it came to light only last year.

At the beginning of 2005, it was revealed that then Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe — who is now prime minister — together with Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker Shoichi Nakagawa (currently chairman of the LDP’s Policy Research Council), had met with senior NHK officials on Jan. 29, 2001, telling them to delete part of a television program scheduled for airing the next day. The part alluded to the role of Emperor Hirohito (posthumously known as the Showa Emperor) in the wartime policy of sexually enslaving women for the Japanese military. Nakagawa insisted to the NHK officials that he was not interfering with the content of programs, but merely seeking reporting “from a fair and neutral standpoint.”

NHK buckled, and the program was partially censored. This was a case of those paying the piper closing up a few holes in his pipe to make his music more “beautiful” (i.e., patriotic), to quote Abe’s current slogan. It had nothing to do with “a fair and neutral standpoint.”

Where is the public outcry against interference in the nation’s freedoms? The silence from the public is deafening — and there is a reason for it. It is not due entirely to the usual timidity of the Japanese people when faced with controversy.

The problem is that the public’s faith in NHK and their commitment to its legal integrity are suffering. Despite the fact that everyone with a TV set is obliged to pay an annual fee of around 16,000 yen, it is estimated that, as of this year, nearly one-third of TV owners are refusing to cough up. This is putting the national broadcaster into a quite considerable financial pickle — with the added weight of the government, as pickling stone, pressing down hard as well. There are now increasing calls in Japan to turn NHK into a commercial channel.

As for those working in NHK, the pressure to make “popular” programs is intensifying. A leading NHK producer told me only last month that he and his colleagues have been given the word: “No more programs for the few; more programs that are accessible to all.”

“Accessible” is, of course, a euphemism for lowering the common denominator — or “dumbing down,” as it is inelegantly termed. It seems that some people in charge of programming in NHK are underestimating the intelligence of the public by equating it with their own. Or are they simply running scared — scared of a government that has them by the ever-shortening curlies.

Reactionary politicians

Why doesn’t the Japanese public come to NHK’s rescue? Can a few reactionary politicians and easily intimidated programmers destroy the single television channel that can provide information to the nation without presumably bowing to powerful commercial interests?

The answer is a resounding, “You bet they can — and, given half a chance, they will!”

There are two reasons for this; and these two reasons explain why NHK now has its back to the wall.

First, the ruling LDP has become much more bolshie, if you will, when it comes to directly pressuring the broadcaster. A program on the excellent NHK news show “Close Up Gendai,” aired on March 28, 2005, took up the issue of school authorities forcing teachers to sing the national anthem at graduation ceremonies, bringing out the teachers’ viewpoints. LDP representatives in the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly strongly attacked the program as “biased.”

Second, in recent years major scandals have eroded the public’s trust in NHK. Chief producers have been helping themselves to millions of yen by padding their budgets with fictitious expenses. One of them, was sentenced this March to five years in jail for embezzlement.

Politicians must demonstrate their support for a truly independent national broadcaster and desist from hiding their reactionary agendas behind a screen of “fairness and neutrality.” NHK, for its part, must get its act together and eliminate loose management that allows for corrupt practices. But on their part, it’s surely high time the Japanese people got their own act together regarding their national broadcaster. It’s called “belief in freedom of expression, even when that expression may be unpopular.” And it is only Act One in the long drama called democracy.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.