The right-wing media and politicians have turned up the volume of their attack on the Asahi Shimbun after the newspaper retracted and apologized for past articles on the “comfort women” and for reports on the testimonies of Masao Yoshida, the late chief of Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant at the time of the March 2011 meltdown disaster.
The current situation poses a problem that not only concerns a single newspaper publisher but also could greatly affect the future of political discussion and even the direction of democratic politics in this country.
It is natural for newspapers, with their mission of reporting facts as news, to make corrections and apologize when they have published erroneous reports. Still, the way the Yomiuri and Sankei dailies have ganged up against Asahi — to be honest — is quite extraordinary.
I wonder whether the two newspapers similarly have corrected and apologized for each one of their mistakes in past reports. What’s worse are the lawmakers who demand summoning a top executive of Asahi for questioning in the Diet. They do not understand what freedom of the press means.
Politicians in the Liberal Democratic Party — and some members of the media who support them — do not repent of or get rebuked for their lies. Yet, when members of the media who are critical of the LDP make mistakes in part of their reports, the pro-establishment media and right-wing politicians join in the onslaught to try to deny the credibility of the reports in their entirety.
This could have the effect of discouraging reporting by the media that is critical of current political and social affairs.
It’s the same picture that was observed when McCarthyism swept the United States in the 1950s. Diplomats, scholars, actors and so on lost their jobs after they were accused of being Communist sympathizers in the congressional investigation against un-American activities. Many of the accusations were fabricated or based on false testimonies.
If we change “un-American” to “un-Japanese,” and “Communism” to “South Korea and China,” we can see that the structure of the accusation is identical to what’s happening in Japan now.
The question is whether Japan has its own Edward R. Murrow. As a journalist, Murrow pierced the fallacy of McCarthyism and produced a series of TV reports critical of Sen. Joseph McCarthy, which led to the rapid decline of his public influence. Murrow symbolized the ability of American society to right what went wrong.
It is difficult to find a Murrow in today’s Japan. It’s like trying to solve one’s own problem by relying on others. Each scholar and journalist in Japan needs to be vocal in protecting free and diverse speech in our country, and be determined to play Murrow’s role.
Of particular importance are the efforts to accurately grasp the big picture on each issue. Retraction of some of the Asahi Shimbun’s reports does not mean there was nothing wrong with the comfort women system or Japan’s nuclear power policy and industry.
Attempts to deny the existence of a social or political problem by pointing to errors in news reports will only produce conclusions that are convenient to those forces who hope to justify Japan’s past wars or to resume nuclear power plant operations as soon as possible.
Democracy as a political system is built on people sharing basic principles that serve as the rules of political competition, no matter how opinions differ.
Freedom of speech and the press and academic freedom are among the most central principles. The lies by those in power and members of the media who support and assist them go unchallenged when the media and scholars critical of the ruling forces tend to be suppressed.
If this situation worsens, Japan could evolve into an authoritarian state of the same ilk as China and North Korea. Such a view of Japan may already be spreading overseas, following media reports that a member of Abe’s new Cabinet and an LDP executive had separate photos taken with the leader of an organization advocating Neo-Nazism.
Of course, it is hard to imagine that authorities in today’s Japan would directly try to suppress freedom of speech. However, a scenario in which those in power attempt to create a centralized, one-dimensional society, on one hand, by letting newspapers, magazines and even more radical popular movements go unchallenged while, on the other hand, pressuring other media organizations, journalists and scholars into a corner of self-censorship, is realistic.
Nearly 70 years after the end of World War II, freedom and democracy in Japan are starting to look less solid than they seem. We must not flinch but keep saying what we need to say.
Jiro Yamaguchi is a professor of political science at Hosei University.
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