LONDON – Freedom of speech and of the press, a key democratic right, is increasingly under threat around the world. Autocracies may pay lip service to the right and pretend that the limits they impose are solely in the interests of stability, but this is hypocrisy.
Since President Xi Jinping came to power in China he has suppressed criticism of his regime and increasingly persecuted dissidents. The situation in North Korea is even worse. In President Vladimir Putin’s Russia, the media are manipulated to ensure that his policies are promoted and Russian nationalism encouraged. In Middle Eastern autocracies critics are liable to arrest and imprisonment.
In countries such as Turkey, which aspires to become a member of the European Union, the regime of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has seized control of opposition newspapers and TV channels and prosecuted journalists who criticize government policies. In Washington, when Erdogan visited the Brookings Institute recently, his bodyguards roughed up reporters protesting Turkish persecution of journalists.
Even in democratically governed countries that aim to uphold human rights, there are some real and potential problems. The threat from terrorism may be held to justify infringement of the privacy of communications and the strict application of security regulations.
Problems arise particularly at the margins. Should journalists who obtain information about terrorist threats be forced to reveal their sources? Should manufacturers of devices be forced to provide access to their methods of encryption?
In some countries such as France, privacy is regarded as an important human right. How far should the right to privacy, for instance, limit access to information about personal and tax records?
In Japan, freedom of speech is guaranteed under the Constitution and the Abe administration has reaffirmed the government’s commitment to media freedom. But Japan is not among the highest countries in the international ranking for freedom of the press in 2015, and concerns have been expressed about the way in which press freedom there is in some respects threatened.
The law for the protection of specially designated secrets was rushed through the Diet in December 2014 without adequate debate or public consultation. State secrets can be designated by ministers and kept secret for up to 60 years. In Britain, with very few exceptions government documents are made accessible after 30 years.
Whistleblowers in Japan who leak vaguely defined state secrets can face up to 10 years in prison. Might this provision be used to prosecute someone who exposed wrongdoing on the part of a minister or official? The inspector who is supposed to monitor the application of the law will be in the Cabinet secretariat and there is no guarantee that he will be really independent.
Defamation can be prosecuted as either a civil or criminal offense. A criminal prosecution could be used to deter publication of information detrimental to government policies or to protect the interests of a private company.
As seen from abroad, one threat to media freedom in Japan lies in how information is doled out to the media. The provision of information to the media through the kisha club system means that it is in the interests of providers and consumers of information to establish cozy relationships, which do not encourage competition or embarrassing leaks. Fortunately this system sometimes breaks down, corrupt practices are revealed and politicians, officials or businessmen are exposed.
Abe and his friends in the Liberal Democratic Party appear to be ultra prickly and sensitive to criticism. This is counterproductive as it suggests that they either have something to hide or realize that the policies being criticized are weak or flawed. The impression is that if you are not one of us (to quote a phrase used by Margaret Thatcher) you must be against us, or in the case of a foreigner, anti-Japanese. This is silly. (I have heard that some Japanese officials have expressed disappointment about articles that I have written that were critical of Abe and his policies and said “we thought he was a friend of Japan,” which, of course, I am, even if a frank one).
This ultra-sensitivity, combined with the kisha club system and the Japanese traditions of consensus, loyalty and sticking together, has another insidious effect. It encourages self-censorship and leads to the toning down of criticism.
Unfortunately there have also been reports that some journalists have faced direct pressure in the form of instructions that “one-sided” coverage should be avoided. NHK, which was supposed to be modeled on the BBC and to give unbiased views of events, appears to have been turned into a government mouthpiece. Commercial TV stations remain theoretically free but they are inevitably beholden to their advertisers.
It seems to some foreign observers that the Japanese government has been waging a vendetta against the Asahi Shimbun because it took up the “comfort women” issue in ways that annoyed the diehards and historical revisionists in Abe’s entourage. This strikes foreign observers as childish and peevish.
Freedom of the press in Japan will not be under existential threat so long as Japanese reporters continue to pursue investigative journalism without fear or favor. It is of paramount importance that the constitutional provisions are not threatened and that the courts do not allow themselves to interpret Japanese laws in ways that might undermine press freedom.
Japan’s image abroad would get a boost if the government made more conscious and concerted efforts to improve the political framework supporting media freedom.
Hugh Cortazzi served as Britain’s ambassador to Japan from 1980 to 1984.
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