The case of junior Liberal Democratic Party lawmakers close to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe blaming the media for the low public support of the government-proposed security legislation and talking of “punishing the media” at a party gathering last Thursday says much about their appalling disregard of freedom of the press. While the party leadership sought to quell the controversy by quickly disciplining the lawmakers involved, their remarks appear to illustrate their arrogant belief that they can silence the opposition by the sheer force of the party’s grip on Diet majority.

Abe, who was initially reluctant to punish the lawmakers on the grounds that they made the statements at a “private study session” of the party, says that freedom of the press must be respected since it constitutes a major pillar of democracy. Still, the junior lawmakers, even as they say they accept the punishment and apologize for “causing misunderstanding and confusion” over their remarks, do not seem to truly understand what was wrong with what they said.

The LDP gathering was attended by about 40 junior members of the party, supposedly to exchange views with people in the field of culture and art. Naoki Hyakuta, a popular novelist who is close to Abe, was invited to the session as the featured speaker. Abe’s close aides, such as Katsunobu Kato, deputy chief Cabinet secretary, and Koichi Hagiuda, a special assistant to the LDP president, also participated in the gathering, which was closed to the media except for the initial part.

After Hyakuta stated that the government is doing a poor job of communicating with the public to drum up support for the security legislation, Lower House member Hideo Onishi reportedly said the “best way to punish the media” is to choke off their advertising revenue and that he wants people in the private sector to lobby Keidanren (Japan Business Federation) on the matter. Sharing Onishi’s view, Takahiro Inoue said the mass media would be hit the hardest when businesses stop buying newspaper ads or sponsoring TV programs, and went on to propose that Keidanren announce a list of “worst 10 programs that are a bad influence on children” and name companies that buy ads to sponsor the programs.

When Takashi Nagao said the mass media in Okinawa has been “completely taken over by leftwing forces,” Hyakuta responded that the two local newspapers in Okinawa — the Okinawa Times and the Ryukyu Shimpo — must be “crushed.” “Although the following should never happen, they (Okinawans) would wake up if one of the islands in Okinawa is seized by China,” the author was quoted as saying. Hyakuta, who was endorsed by Abe as a governor of NHK and stirred up controversies through his remarks during his stint on the board of the public broadcaster, later told Kyodo News that he made the statement as a joke in an off-the-record setting and that he never endorsed the lawmakers’ calls for punishing the media (although he reportedly stated in a separate lecture session that he meant the remark as a joke but he now really hopes that the two newspapers would disappear).

Abe has said these statements were “regrettable” if they had indeed been made. Secretary-General Sadakazu Tanigaki and other senior LDP leaders have desperately tried to control the damage from spilling over on the Lower House deliberations on the security legislation, which have been proceeding at a much slower pace than they had hoped as key questions have emerged over the constitutionality of the bills.

The lawmakers’ statements seem to resonate with the Abe administration’s disregard of dissenting views toward its policy agenda — including the security legislation — on the strength of the ruling alliance’s dominant grip on Diet majority. The LDP should not dismiss the fiasco as an isolated case of errant remarks by its junior members. Instead Abe and other top leaders should reflect on how the party has been conducting itself since it returned to power.

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