NHK’s Board of Governors on Dec. 20 appointed Katsuto Momii, former president of Nihon Unisys, a major computer and communication systems and software company, as the next president of Japan’s public broadcast organization. His three-year term starts Jan. 25.

How to cope with the rapidly changing environment caused by digital innovations is a big challenge for NHK. But the most important task for Momii will be to keep a distance from politics and to refrain from intervening in NHK’s right to freedom of expression as a news organization. He is close to business leaders who have strong ties with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Momii reportedly supports the state secrets law, which severely limits ordinary citizens’ and journalists’ access to government information, as well as Abe’s ideas for revising the Constitution.

At an earlier stage to select the next NHK president, the Board of Governors had regarded current NHK President Masayuki Matsumoto as the main candidate. Matsumoto, a former president of Central Japan Railway Co. (JR Tokai), introduced lower TV broadcast subscription fees in October 2012. He also improved NHK’s revenue-expenditure balance sheet by carrying out wage cuts and by increasing the number of people who pay fees to receive NHK satellite broadcasts.

But Matsumoto suddenly announced Dec. 5 that he will step down Jan. 24, the last day of his first term. Apparently he became fed up with the Diet’s approval in November of Abe’s appointment of four new members to the Board of Governors. All of the new members are close to Abe, including author Naoki Hyakuta and philosopher Michiko Hasegawa. Opposition by four of the 12 board members can veto the appointment of a new NHK president.

In the Abe Cabinet and the Liberal Democratic Party, there has been deep criticism of NHK’s reporting on the issues of nuclear power generation, the deployment of the Osprey tilt-rotor transport planes by the U.S. armed forces and territorial disputes.

Abe’s selection of the new four members for NHK’s Board of Governors is regarded as an expression of his desire to change NHK’s reporting direction and his intention to intervene in the selection of the new NHK president. The Board of Governors, NHK’s highest decision-making body, determines NHK’s basic policy and supervises the activities of NHK executives, including those of the NHK president. The prime minister cannot appoint the NHK president; that’s the task of the Board of Governors. NHK’s operations are not covered by tax or commercial funding, but rather by TV subscription fees. The purpose of these systems is to ensure the editorial independence of NHK as a news organization.

We hope that Momii understands and respects the principle behind the systems. He should refrain from large-scale cost-cutting in the production of radio and TV programs because program quality would likely deteriorate as a result. He should strive to ensure that NHK provides high-quality news, documentaries, and education/cultural programs that are based on wide coverage and scrupulous research.

Most importantly, Momii should make it his mission to ensure that NHK employees can express themselves freely at work and produce programs that reflect their sense of duty and conviction as members of a public broadcast organization. In nutshell, he should refrain from any acts that could undermine NHK’s independence.

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