In a recent report on an NHK documentary criticized for staging part of its content, a third-party organization that promotes ethical standards in broadcasting said the public broadcaster committed a “serious violation of broadcasting ethics.” NHK and other broadcasters need to take the judgment seriously and disavow any behavior that undermines the trust of viewers. At the same time, the panel severely lashed out at the Abe administration and the Liberal Democratic Party for taking NHK to task over the issue, expressing a sense of crisis that those in power are threatening freedom of broadcasting. Freedom of the press is a pillar of democracy. The administration and the LDP should refrain from trying to control the media.

The program “Close-up Gendai,” aired in May 2014, featured scams in which brokers collude with Buddhist temples and turn people with multiple debts into monks through a brief ritual. These “instant monks” take advantage of a system under which monks can easily change their given name in their family register. With a new name, they can take out new housing loans. Meanwhile, the brokers receive a fee from these “instant monks” for the service.

The program included a scene showing a meeting between a broker and a man with multiple debts. But the person appearing as the broker said in a weekly magazine published in March that he had been told by NHK to “act” the part. The Broadcasting Ethics and Program Improvement Organization (BPO) interviewed 11 NHK staffers, as well as the “broker” and the debtor, and its conclusion is a harsh verdict against the broadcaster. Although the scene gave the impression that the debtor happened to come to the broker’s office for the first time while NHK was interviewing the broker, it turned out that the two men had known each other for years. The reporter for the program had also known them both for some time, and the location of the encounter had been prepared by the debtor with the reporter’s knowledge.

Criticizing NHK for misleading viewers by presenting the scene as if it had been shot by a hidden camera and had caught the scam in action, the BPO report declared that the broadcaster grossly deviated from acceptable practices for a news-related program. The report also determined that the reporter’s activities were problematic from the viewpoint of ensuring truthfulness because he lacked preparatory gathering of information and corroboration of facts, and relied completely on information from the two men. NHK must realize that the BPO’s findings represent a strong denunciation of the conclusion by the broadcaster’s in-house probe released in April, which stated that the program included no prearranged performances that resulted in a fabrication of facts.

What is conspicuous about the BPO’s report is that the last four of its 28 pages are mainly devoted to criticism of the Abe administration and LDP’s behavior toward NHK over the program. Only a few hours after the NHK issued its report on the in-house probe, Internal Affairs and Communications Minister Sanae Takaichi released a stern written warning to the broadcaster — the first such action by a communications minister since 2007. Later that month, the LDP’s information and communications strategy research group summoned NHK executives and heard their explanations on the issue behind closed doors.

The BPO report criticized the government and the LDP by citing Article 1, Section 2 of the Broadcast Law, which states the principle of securing freedom of expression in broadcasting by ensuring impartiality, truthfulness and autonomy. The report pointed out that this provision is designed to prevent the government and those in power from pressuring or intervening in the activities of broadcasters — so that their impartiality, truthfulness and autonomy will not be violated.

The report also said the various principles listed in the law’s Article 4 that broadcasters must follow, such as political neutrality and unbending of truths, are ethical standards for them in producing programs and do not constitute a legal basis for control of the content of programs by those in power. It concluded that neither the communications minister nor the LDP is entitled to intervene in the content of individual programs. The BPO’s viewpoint is correct, and the Abe government should respect it, especially in light of Article 21 of the Constitution, which states that “speech, press and all other forms of expression are guaranteed.” Unfortunately, however, in response to the BPO’s criticism, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Takaichi and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga attempted to justify the communications minister’s action by saying to the effect that the Broadcast Law provides a legal basis for government actions. LDP Secretary-General Sadakazu Tanigaki even said that his party may again summon broadcasting executives if a similar problem occurs again.

Abe, Takaichi, Suga and Tanigaki should understand that the purpose of the Broadcast Law is to contribute to the healthy development of democracy and that Article 3 of the law declares that the content of broadcast programs will not be interfered with or controlled by anyone without the backing of a specific law. Their attitude to justify exercising pressure on broadcasters is ominous and could undermine the freedom of expression, which is a foundation of democracy. People in broadcasting, and other media for that matter, should not cower even if the government or a political party tries to put pressure on or interfere with their activities.

Earlier this year, it was reported that the LDP was thinking of involving the government in the operation of the BPO, a third-party body set up in 2003 by the nation’s broadcasters. Such a move would only increase government control of broadcasting. The broadcasting industry should resolutely reject such a move.

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