Communications minister Sanae Takaichi has mentioned the possibility that by invoking the Broadcast Law and the Radio Law, the government may order a radio or TV station to stop broadcasting if it repeatedly airs programs that run counter to political impartiality. Such an interpretation of the Broadcast Law could threaten freedom of expression and speech. Even if she was only referring to a hypothetical possibility, her statement could have an intimidating effect on broadcast media. Broadcasters should not respond by engaging in self-censorship.

In the Monday session of the Lower House Budget Committee, Takaichi, responding to a question from a Democratic Party of Japan lawmaker, said that Article 4 of the law, which lists various principles that broadcasters must follow, such as political neutrality and the upholding of truth, has a legally binding power in addition to being an ethical code. The Broadcasting Ethics and Program Improvement Organization (BPO), a third-party body set up by the nation’s broadcasters in 2003, has taken the position that the principles are ethical standards for broadcasters in producing their programs.

If Takaichi’s interpretation prevails, it would be easy to imagine that the government would be tempted to use Article 4 as a legal tool to control the content of broadcast programs. The communications minister went on to say that if broadcasters that are judged to be politically partial do not mend their ways despite repeated warnings, the government cannot rule out punitive action under the law.

The next day before the same committee, another DPJ lawmaker asked whether the government will issue an order to stop broadcasting in the event a broadcaster repeatedly airs programs that support opposition to revising the war-renouncing Article 9 of the Constitution. Takaichi responded by spelling out conditions for the government to issue such an order: that programs in violation of the Broadcast Law have been aired, that the programs impair public interests so that halting their broadcasting would be deemed necessary, that the broadcaster repeatedly airs similar programs and does not take sufficient steps to prevent their recurrence, and that it is impossible to expect airing of programs that follow the law if the matter is left up to the broadcaster.

Article 76 of the Radio Law empowers the communications minister to order a broadcaster to shut down for as long as three months if they violate the Radio Law, the Broadcast Law as well as administrative guidance and other actions based on them. The article also lays down conditions for the government to rescind broadcasting licenses. Although Takaichi said it is most unlikely that airing just one problematic program would lead to an order to halt broadcasting, the conditions set down by the minister are so vague that much is left to the government’s discretion. If her view is followed, the government would have the power to determine whether a particular program follows the principles listed by Article 4 of the Broadcast Law. Takaichi’s stance carries the danger of undermining the broadcast media’s mission of serving as a foundation of democracy by providing information and giving opportunities to express various opinions, including those critical of the government and those in power.

Takaichi misunderstands the spirit of the Broadcast Law. Article 1, Section 2 of the Broadcast Law states the principle of securing freedom of expression in broadcasting by ensuring impartiality, truthfulness and autonomy. This section should be interpreted as meaning that the government and those in power should refrain from pressuring or intervening in the activities of broadcasters — so that their impartiality, truthfulness and autonomy will not be violated.

Article 3 of the law says the content of programs will not be interfered with or controlled by anyone without the backing of a specific law. The logic is that the government should fully respect the autonomy of broadcasters so that freedom of expression is ensured. It should strictly refrain from using threats or pressure in its relations with broadcast media. This is all the more important since the government is given the power to issue broadcast licenses.

Takaichi’s statement should be taken in the context of the increasing pressure that the Abe administration and the Liberal Democratic Party have placed on broadcasters in recent years. In November 2014, just before a Lower House election, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe complained that TBS was deliberately choosing voices on the street critical of his economic policy. Then the LDP handed six Tokyo-based TV stations a written request that called for “ensuring fairness” in such matters as selection of guest speakers and topics, time distribution for each of them and the conduct of street interviews. In April 2015, the LDP summoned executives of NHK and TV Asahi, saying that the popular NHK news analysis program “Close-up Gendai” in May 2014 and TV Asahi’s “Hodo Station” program in March 2015 “bent the truth.” In the latter program, a commentator had staged a surprise protest over TV Asahi’s decision to cave in to pressure from the prime minister’s office to pull him off the program.

Broadcasters should be ready to fight pressure from the government and political parties, and should refrain from self-censorship. When then-communications minister Yoshihiro Katayama was asked in 2010 about freedom of expression and administrative power over broadcasters, he said that the government must exercise utmost restraint in exercising such power. The Abe administration should follow this position, which is a correct interpretation of the Broadcast Law.

Takaichi’s view strengthens the case for creating a neutral, independent body to take charge of broadcasting administration, including the issuance and withdrawals of licenses. This would prevent governments that do not correctly understand the vital role that an unfettered media plays in democracies from using their power to silence opinions they dislike.

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