Art is trolling life in Japan as the Oscar-winning “Spotlight” hits theaters just as the nation’s press-freedom ranking plummets.
The film has nothing to do with Japan directly. It depicts a 2001 Boston Globe project to uncover the Catholic Church’s failure to address decades of serial sexual abuse by priests. But it’s really about how the media has the power to bring entrenched vested interest to heel and exact justice, something all too rare in our declining-circulation times.
And it’s arriving at an embarrassing moment for Shinzo Abe’s government. It nosedived 11 spots in the 2016 Reporters Without Borders media-freedom index to 71st place, trailing Tanzania, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Dominican Republic. The second straight year of precipitous declines for the Group of Seven nation says more about why the economy is sputtering than meets the eye.
The drop was but one blow to Japan’s transparency street cred last week. On April 19, David Kaye, United Nations special rapporteur on free expression, slapped the Abe administration’s chilling campaign to muzzle the media. A member of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, meanwhile, is spotlighting foreign media critical of Abe and news outlets, including national broadcaster NHK (run by an Abe-sympathizing right-winger), shed anchors who dare to ask tough questions. Communications minister Sanae Takaichi is threatening to shutter broadcasters who don’t toe the government’s line.
What does this have to do with the failure of Abenomics? Lots. For one thing, reporters have long acted more like cheerleaders than chroniclers of Abe’s reflation plan — participating in the scheme, not covering it. For another, Abe’s nationalist leanings and media-control efforts increased the fourth estate’s predisposition for self-censorship.
The first problem is as much about deference as wishful thinking. Those of us who live here want Abe to succeed. That’s why, for three-plus years, many gave his reforms the benefit of the doubt. What’s missing, though, is critical and independent thinking. There’s little reporting on the dark sides of Abe’s yen devaluation: how it hurts household confidence; imports bad inflation; takes pressure off CEOs to restructure and innovate; the awkwardness of a rich nation beggaring poorer neighbors for a little growth. The same goes for the efficacy of the Bank of Japan cornering stocks (it’s now a top-10 shareholder in the vast majority of Nikkei shares) along with the bond market.
Why has the media held its fire as Abe reopens the nuclear power plants his 126 million people came to fear after the 2011 Fukushima crisis? Abe, a champion of the nuclear-industrial complex, refused to switch off a reactor on the western island of Kyushu amid a recent series of giant earthquakes. Why has the most critical coverage of Takata’s deadly airbags come from foreign media, just as with Fukushima and the $1.7 billion fraud at Olympus in recent years?
The answer can be found in the self-censorship that’s long had editors pulling punches. Blame the “kisha club” system, Japan’s unique answer to the press organizations that exist around the globe. For Japan’s docile media outlets, access is everything. If you’re a reporter covering the transport ministry, you’re likely to go easy on Takata or Mitsubishi Motors’s fuel-efficiency scandal for fear of annoying the industry and losing sources. Power-industry scribes, for example, disgraced themselves before and after Fukushima by toeing the official line on nuclear safety.
Ditto for the government’s sanitization efforts. Rather than calling women from South Korea, China and elsewhere corralled into World War II brothels “sex slaves,” the media goes with Tokyo’s preferred “comfort women” vernacular. When writing about Abe reinterpreting the war-renouncing Constitution to send troops aboard, reporters employ bizarre government-suggested phrases like “proactive pacifism” and “collective self-defense,” whatever that means.
Such tensions exist everywhere, of course. White House press members in Washington can often seem more like lapdogs than watchdogs. I myself felt dirty at times in the late 1990s traveling on Treasury Department planes around the world. When you’re embedded with those you’re covering — flying, eating and commiserating with Robert Rubin, Lawrence Summers or Timothy Geithner 24/7 — the temptation is to play nice to maintain group harmony. But intimacy didn’t stop me from writing critically about U.S. policies. I work for my readers, not for the government, industry or company I cover.
Many Japanese journalists come at their jobs from the opposite direction: access and harmony first, inconvenient truths second. Not all, of course. Japan boasts a stable of muckraking weekly magazines that tackle political and corporate malfeasance. But the mainstream press, one dependent on Japan Inc.’s advertising dollars, shies away from covering institutionalized wrongdoing for fear of retaliation. And, thanks to Abe, prison, too.
The state secrets bill he rammed through the Diet in 2014 grants Tokyo powers to imprison journalists and their sources for disclosing classified information. The problem is ambiguity. Officials are borrowing from U.S. judge Potter Stewart’s definition of pornography — “I know it when I see it” — in applying this Draconian law. If a reporter, for example, learns Tokyo Electric Power Co. is lying about safety checks at Fukushima or other reactors, is he or she breaking the law? If I learn that the transport ministry knew about Mitsubishi’s fuel-economy scandal and helped cover it up, will I go to jail? Is a reporter safe to break news about the quality of submarines Tokyo is trying to sell Australia? No one knows.
Kaye speaks for investors, too, when he says press freedom in Japan is “really worrying” and urges the government to “get itself out of the media-regulation business” immediately. “A significant number of journalists I met,” he said in Tokyo, “feel intense pressure from the government, abetted by management, to conform their reporting to official policy preferences. Many claimed to have been sidelined or silenced following indirect pressure from leading politicians.”
We’re not talking China or Myanmar here. We’re talking about a G-7 nation just one month before world leaders visit Japan and pledge to increase transparency, cooperation and democratic principles. What the G-7 really should do is call Tokyo to task for borrowing more than a few pages from Beijing’s censorship playbook. How can Japan’s fossilized political and corporate systems change, after all, if Tokyo is acting to protect them from scrutiny?
Neutering the media works at cross purposes with Abenomics. One of its key goals is stronger corporate governance to increase competiveness, innovation and wages. Yet Toshiba’s accounting scandal, Takata’s airbag fiasco, Tepco’s radiation leaks, Sharp’s opacity and Mitsubishi serving up Japan Inc.’s “Libor moment” shows just how daunting that task will be. A free and aggressive media would spotlight impediments to the nation raising its economic game.
Hence the irony of “Spotlight” opening in Japan now, says Jeff Kingston, head of Asian studies at the Tokyo campus of Temple University. That’s because such tales of mainstream reporters boldly uncovering corruption just don’t happen in the No. 3 economy. In 2014, Reporters Without Borders ranked Japan 59th in press freedom ahead of Mauritania, Hong Kong and Tonga. Today, Japan trails all three by a wide margin thanks to a government that’s more interested in attacking newspapers than deflation.
William Pesek, executive editor of Barron’s Asia, is based in Tokyo and writes on Asian economics. www.barronsasia.com
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