The Abe administration plans to submit to the Diet a bill designed to protect state secrets that the government deems vital to national security. The bill will enable the heads of administrative organizations to designate a wide range of information as “special secrets” and mete out up to 10 years’ imprisonment to national servants who leak such secrets as well as those who obtain the secrets, including reporters, through “conspiracy, instigation and agitation.” The bill obviously would undermine the people’s right to know what their government is doing by strongly limiting their access to information. The government should rewrite the bill to ensure that freedom of information and freedom of the press — two pillars of democracy — are fully upheld.

The government says that the bill is necessary to ensure the effective functioning of the planned National Security Council, which is being pushed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Under the bill, the heads of administrative bodies would designate as special secrets an extremely wide range of information in the areas of defense, diplomacy, counterintelligence and prevention of terrorism if they think the information merits special protection. The bill’s biggest flaw is that the officials would have discretionary power and that the bill has no internal mechanism — such as an in camera committee — to verify whether the designation is justifiable from the viewpoint of protecting the people’s right to know.

The defense minister would be able to designate almost all information related to defense and the Self-Defense Forces if he wishes so, including plans, estimates and studies related to operations of the SDF and improvement of the nation’s defense capabilities; types and quantities of weapons and ammunition; capabilities and ways of production and uses of weapons and ammunition in the development stage, and designs and capabilities of defense-related facilities.

The foreign minister would be able to designate as special secrets information concerning “negotiations” and scope of cooperation with foreign governments or international organizations in the field of security. This concept is so wide and vague that the foreign minister would be able to expand the scope of special secrets as desired and the government would be able to conduct secret security negotiations with foreign countries. Information related to guarding of nuclear power plants to prevent terrorist attacks could also be classified as special secrets.

Once information held by the government is designated as a special secret, the status would be maintained for five years and it could be readily renewed by the heads of administrative bodies.

The bill’s proposed punishment of up to 10 years’ imprisonment for national servants who leak special secrets is far harsher than the current punishment of up to one year’s imprisonment for national servants who violate the duty of confidentiality and up to five years’ imprisonment for SDF members who leak defense secrets. The fact that the bill allows for the punishing of reporters who try to investigate special secrets is extremely worrisome. It is unclear whether reporters who press national servants to discuss about special secrets would be regarded as “instigating” them to talk.

The bill carries a danger of expanding the scope of special secrets ad infinitum and could undermine the fundamental democratic principles of freedom of information and freedom of the press. Lawmakers and the public need to recognize the danger posed by the bill and act to protect democratic freedoms.

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