NHK must maintain independence

Earlier this month, NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corporation) announced its medium-term budget plan covering three years from fiscal 2015. NHK attaches importance to strengthening its international broadcast services by boosting their budget to ¥22.5 billion in fiscal 2015, up 31.7 percent from fiscal 2014. Over the three years, it envisages increasing spending on these services by ¥10 billion.

Given that the Abe administration and the Liberal Democratic Party are keen on promoting what they regard as national interests through NHK’s international broadcasts — and the unfortunate fact that 12 NHK governors are appointed by the prime minister with the consent of the Diet — it is all the more imperative that NHK adhere to the principle of ensuring objectivity in reporting and taking up various opinions on important issues from various angles.

NHK’s move comes at a time when a panel of the communications ministry is discussing how to strengthen NHK’s broadcasts aimed at overseas audiences. In its interim report issued last week, the panel said that one of the roles of NHK World TV, an English-language service for people outside Japan, should be to accurately convey official views on Japan’s important policies and international issues. The panel stated that the TV service can produce economic benefits by helping increase demand for Japanese products and services, and boost the number of tourists visiting Japan, and called for the wider use of subtitles in languages other than English to target more diverse audiences.

At a September news conference, communications minister Sanae Takaichi said there are historical issues over which Japan is misunderstood, or on which Japan has failed to convey sufficient information, so it is important that NHK transmit information containing the historical background of such issues and present Japan’s “legitimate positions” in them.

The panel’s report and Takaichi’s statement amount to a highly politicized view of Japan’s public broadcaster, whose overall budget is mostly supported by fees paid by viewers and listeners. NHK must keep in mind that it is neither a mouthpiece of the government nor a salesman, and should exercise its own judgment on what issues to report and how to report them. Because its finances are based on fees from viewers and listeners, NHK has a duty to present diverse views on important issues, not just the current government’s perspective.

In a related move, a paper distributed earlier this month at a meeting of the LDP’s panel on international information said that anti-Japanese propaganda by China and South Korea on Japan’s domestic and foreign policies is abundant, and that the nation should adopt an “information strategy” that departs from “neutrality and sheer defense.”

It also hinted at the need to establish a new international broadcast service because the existing NHK World TV and NHK World Radio Nippon are “fettered with many basic restrictions such as freedom of the press.” This kind of thinking shows the LDP panel’s shocking lack of respect for press freedoms — a pillar of democracy.

Such moves by the LDP and the communications ministry will no doubt increase pressure on NHK to heed the government’s wishes. But it needs to maintain its independence, keeping in mind that it is not a state-run media but a broadcaster operating on public fees even though its annual budget needs to be approved by the Diet.

When Katsuto Momii became NHK’s president about a year ago, he stirred up controversy when he said that when the government says “right,” NHK cannot say “left.” He retracted the remark later, but it raised concerns about his commitment to defend NHK’s independence as a media organization.

The day before Prime Minister Shinzo Abe dissolved the Lower House in November, the LDP distributed a written request to TV broadcasters in Tokyo that they report on the upcoming election campaign with “fairness and neutrality.” It even mentioned the frequency and time duration of remarks by people appearing in election-related programs, the selection of guests for such programs and the way to conduct and broadcast street interviews. This was a bizarre move for a political party to take before a national election, and demonstrates an alarming lack of awareness of the role of the press.

Five other Tokyo-based TV broadcasters acknowledged receiving the LDP’s request, and they declared that they would continue to report the news as they had in the past — in a fair and neutral manner. Worryingly, however, NHK, refused even to clarify whether it had received the request.

Earlier this month, the popular comic duo Bakusho Mondai disclosed that at a meeting to prepare for a Jan. 3 program, NHK told them not to use material dealing with politicians. They said they had no choice but to follow the request. All media organizations face two dangers: pressures from the outside and self-censorship. If they succumb to either, they will fail to carry out their duties and lose the public’s trust.

Of course, NHK should disseminate information abroad about Japanese society and culture, but this should not be done in a manner that toes the government’s political line. The broadcaster must strive to carry out its international reporting activities in a way that will generate trust among viewers abroad. It should be aware that if it comes to be regarded as a public relations machine of the Japanese government, the trust accorded to it by audiences will collapse, thus undermining NHK’s foundation.

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