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A perfect storm is descending on freedom of the press in Japan: The country just sank to No. 72 in the global press freedom ranking issued Wednesday by Reporters Without Borders, down from No. 11 in 2010. And David Kaye, the U.N. special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, gave a press conference in Tokyo on Tuesday decrying censorship, weak legal protections and media intimidation in Japan — consequences of various media-muzzling initiatives by the Shinzo Abe administration. It also emerged that one Liberal Democratic Party member is the designated Internet attack dog who goes after foreign journalists for criticizing Abe, while in Sekai magazine, ousted NHK anchor Hiroko Kuniya talked about Japan’s unfavorable media culture that inhibits robust journalism. Abe’s press-freedom black eye comes just as “Spotlight” opens in theaters, and a month before G-7 leaders arrive.

The film “Spotlight” won Oscars for best picture and best original screenplay at the 2016 Academy Awards. It is a film about The Boston Globe’s titular investigative journalism unit, who conduct in-depth investigations into issues that don’t get adequately covered in the day-to-day news.

There could never be a Japanese version of this Oscar-winning film because journalists here are so coopted and intimidated that they dare not tackle stories that uncover systemic institutionalized wrongdoing. They fear that even if they did, the powers that be could never be taken down — the judicial system is rigged in their favor. So why bother?

Instead, readers are fed trivial but titillating sexual and financial scandals that suggest the media is doing its job and that we are being given “All the News Without Fear or Favor.” But are we?

There are committed investigative Japanese journalists and a number of weekly magazines and smaller publications that tackle controversial stories. For example, Facta magazine broke the Olympus accounting scandal, but one is left with the feeling that some of that story is missing.

Publishers are wary of an unfavorable legal environment and a massive spike in financial penalties imposed on media companies in defamation lawsuits over the past 20 years — the playing field is tilted in favor of wrongdoers. But there are also third-rail taboos in Japan that deter even the most ballsy reporters and editors because the consequences can be ugly, as the Asahi Shimbun learned in 1987 when a rightist shot and killed a reporter in its newsroom.

These days, newspapers are businesses where accountants, lawyers and moguls rule the roost, taking some of the bite out of the watchdogs. Yet investigative teams are still digging — even if resources are slashed and editors and publishers are more pusillanimous — because some reporters remain undaunted and still believe the truth will set us free.

Typically, these teams in the United States are the ones in contention for Pulitzer Prizes precisely because they shine a light into dark corners and expose wrongdoing, fulfilling the mandate of the fourth estate.

The Boston Globe’s Spotlight team won a Pulitzer in 2003 for uncovering widespread child sex abuse in the Boston area by Roman Catholic priests and found evidence of a cover-up that reached into the higher echelons of the church hierarchy. The pedophile priests were not held accountable as the church shuffled these pathetic perverts from parish to parish, and by not warning anyone, even more innocent lives were ruined.

The church, firmly embedded in Boston’s crusty establishment, tried to quash the story, but in the end the zealous reporters triumphed over evil despite this hostile environment.

Japan could use a few spotlights, but here the establishment has the dimmer switch firmly in hand.

David McNeill, a veteran Tokyo-based journalist who writes for The Economist and Irish Times, as well as The Japan Times, believes that the Japanese kisha clubs, a “press-club” system in which journalists are embedded in the organization they are assigned to report on, have handicapped the Japanese media.

“The press-club system discourages investigative journalism and helps ensure that the cream of Japan’s best-paid reporters are in a more symbiotic relationship with their sources than in the United States,” laments McNeill. “Bureaucrats coax, nudge and steer journalists into preferred topics and away from political land mines.

“In return for exclusive access to information and sources, the journalists pull their punches, discouraging what might otherwise be a more adversarial relationship,” he adds. “That makes an expose of the kind depicted in ‘Spotlight’ difficult, if not impossible.”

Martin Fackler, former Tokyo bureau chief of The New York Times, agrees with this dismal assessment, telling me that Japanese reporters are “elite salarymen, products of top universities who become an integral part of the postwar political establishment. They jealously guard their insider status and the privileged access that it brings. This is the purpose of the press clubs — they end up repeating, and reinforcing, official narratives.”

This is why David Kaye has called for their abolition to boost media independence. Investigative journalism requires a fundamentally different approach.

“It’s about unearthing what the powerful don’t necessarily want you to know, and then using that to hold the powerful accountable,” Fackler says. “It requires the more adversarial stance of the watchdog. And it is all about challenging official narratives and using the facts to create counter-narratives.”

Sadly, mainstream Japanese journalists are not equipped to do that. While the weekly magazines can be feistier, McNeill says they are “too obsessed by tittle-tattle, tits and bureaucratic infighting to really carry the burden of investigative journalism.”

A Japanese journalist currently on an investigative team who requested anonymity due to his position says he is basically in agreement, but cites a few recent positive cases: the Asahi Shimbun’s revelations about an Osaka prosecutor’s manipulation of evidence; an in-depth investigation of 10,000 missing elderly people by the Mainichi Shimbun and NHK; and Shukan Bunshun magazine’s recent expose of a scandal involving economic minister Akira Amari.

“But we still need still much, much more,” says the journalist.

He argues that investigative teams have autonomy and are not subject to direct intervention. Rather, the context favoring access journalism encourages deference to authority, and laws regarding the privacy and protection of personal information are “prohibitively broad,” leaving the media vulnerable to lawsuits.

Moreover, he says that in-depth reporting suffers because newspapers “prefer breaking news first, rather than long stories with plural viewpoints and independent from a single significant source. So many journalists choose to embrace their precious sources to secure access.”

But it is not, he believes, only a media problem: The public shares journalists’ deference toward authorities. Sharing experiences from teaching undergraduate journalism, he is surprised at many students’ negative reactions to Western-style investigative journalism.

“I suspect Japanese society is happy with things being done by the government or experts,” he says, “not in public and under public scrutiny.”

Alas, it is a system that encourages journalists to keep their heads down, conveying little of what they know that might antagonize the powerful. And they have good reason to doubt that their employers will cover their backs in the event they do pull the trigger.

For example, Japan’s “nuclear village” — pro-nuclear advocates in business, politics, media and academia — is a major player in the establishment and, considering the revelations related to the Fukushima disaster, has had more success than the Catholic Church in warding off headwinds from scandals. Tepco executives, unlike the pedophile priests, have not yet been defrocked despite an array of revelations, and nuclear energy is back in play despite lingering safety concerns and high costs.

These revelations include reports that the president of Tepco was sponsoring a junket in China for high-level media executives as Fukushima’s three meltdowns were happening, giving the public a glimpse of the collaborative relationships that are carefully nurtured to keep the media onside.

Next week we examine how the Asahi Shimbun team that investigated the Fukushima accident was derailed.

Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
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