Political pressure on broadcasters

The Liberal Democratic Party, evoking the Broadcast Law, last week summoned executives of NHK and TV Asahi, saying that suspicion exists that two programs broadcast by the TV stations “bent the truth.” The LDP’s action is extraordinary and constitutes political pressure on the TV broadcasters and interference in their broadcasting activities. Such an action threatens freedom of the press and expression; it must not be condoned.

NHK is accused of making up an interview with a man identified as a broker in a fraud scheme featured by the popular news analysis program Close-up Gendai last May. It has launched its own probe into the case, questioned people concerned, including the man and a reporter, and issued an interim report. It apologized for an erroneous part of the program and is still continuing its investigation.

The TV Asahi program in question is the March 27 edition of the popular evening news program Hodo Station. In that program, Shigeaki Koga, a commentator and former official of the trade and industry ministry, staged a surprise protest, saying that the broadcaster gave in to pressure from the prime minister’s office to pull him off the program and that he suffered “fierce bashing” from Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga and other people at the office. He also held up a piece of paper with the English words “I am not ABE”written on it — an apparent criticism of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Koga has been critical of the state secrets law, the lifting of Japan’s ban on weapons exports, the Abe administration’s reinterpretation of the Constitution so that Japan can engage in collective self-defense and its handling of the murders of two Japanese hostages by the Islamic State extremist group.

TV Asahi’s chairman Hiroshi Hayakawa apologized to viewers by saying that an “unscheduled happening” occurred during the program. He also denied that the LDP applied pressure on TV Asahi.

Apparently taking a cue from Suga’s remark that Koga’s statement is groundless and his criticism that Koga used public broadcast bandwidth to tell “what is against the fact,” the LDP summoned the TV executives. It cited Article 4 of the Broadcast Law, which says that broadcasters should be politically impartial, should not bend the truth in reporting and should take up various viewpoints when reporting on an issue on which public opinion is divided.

But the LDP should not ignore what Article 1 of the law says — that the law’s purpose is to ensure freedom of expression by ensuring impartiality, truthfulness and autonomy of broadcasting, and to contribute to healthy development of democracy by making clear the responsibilities of people engaged in broadcasting. Article 3 says that programs will not be interfered with or controlled by anyone without the backing of a specific law. Given these stipulations, broadcasters should take corrective measures autonomously if errors are committed in their programs. Since the NHK is continuing its probe into the alleged fraudulent interview and TV Asahi chairman has denied Koga’s allegation of LDP pressure, the party’s summoning of the executives constitutes nothing other than political pressure on the broadcasters — although LDP officials insist otherwise.

In November, the LDP delivered a written request to the six Tokyo-based TV broadcasters urging them to report on the Lower House election the following month “in a fair manner,” even calling for “ensuring fairness” in such matters as selection of guest speakers and topics, time distribution for each of them, frequency of remarks by them and the way to conduct street interviews. Taking advantage of the Close-up Gendai and Hodo Station cases, the LDP reportedly is thinking of involving the government in the operation of the Broadcasting Ethics and Program Improvement Organization, a third party body set up in 2003 by Japan’s broadcasters. Such a move runs counter to freedom of the press and expression.

Broadcasters should not cower in the face of the LDP’s pressure and interference. Their responsibilities are heavy. The nation’s democracy will be threatened if TVs and other mass media exercise self-restraint and self-censorship to evade pressure from the government and political parties.

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