The agenda for discussing reform of the broadcasting business, spelled out by the Cabinet Office’s regulatory promotion council in mid-April, touches little on the major overhaul that the government was earlier reported to be contemplating, including a contentious abolition of Article 4 of the broadcast law that requires broadcasters to ensure political fairness in their programs. At the reform council’s meeting, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe emphasized the time is ripe for exploring measures toward reform “since the wall that separates broadcasting from telecommunication is fast disappearing.” But as the situation stands, a policy proposal to be compiled by the council next month is not likely to include drastic steps.

It is believed that the government has shelved the contemplated reforms for now in the face of stiff opposition from commercial broadcasters. Rapid advances in telecommunications technology, such as sharply faster internet speeds, are indeed lowering the distinction between conventional and online broadcasters — while the latter are not regulated under the broadcast law. The idea behind the originally considered reforms was reportedly to allow more businesses to enter the broadcast business through the deregulation. The issue should be thoroughly discussed from scratch with a focus on what regulatory regime would best contribute to maintaining and creating broadcast content that serves the interests of viewers.

Article 4 of the broadcast law states that a broadcaster shall not negatively influence public safety and morals, shall be politically fair, shall not distort the facts and shall clarify the points at issue from as many angles as possible when there are conflicting opinions. The internal affairs and communications minister can, according to government interpretations, suspend the use of radio waves by TV and radio broadcasters or take other administrative measures if they are deemed to have violated the provision. Some in the broadcast industry reportedly favor abolishing the article for fear that politicians and bureaucrats could abuse the provision and put pressure on broadcasters airing programs critical of the government. But others have expressed concern that eliminating the provision could result in a proliferation of more biased programs.

Online content distributors are not bound by such provisions. The idea of abolishing Article 4 was believed to be aimed at unifying the different regulations currently applied to conventional and online broadcasters to encourage new entrants to the broadcast business and spur competition to offer diverse programs. But doubts persist as to whether the public nature of broadcasting media should be maintained under regulations or left to market competition under a deregulated environment.

In commenting on the issue of broadcast business reforms, the Japanese Commercial Broadcasters Association warned that discussing a review of the broadcasting system from the sole viewpoint of industrial promotion, while disregarding the obligation of broadcast media to serve the people’s right to be informed, would not be in the public interest. A panel of the Japanese Newspaper Publishers and Editors Association also released a statement saying that the abolition of Article 4 might breed politically biased broadcasters, low-quality programs or false news reports that are not based on fact, thus negatively affecting people’s lives.

In the United States, TV and radio broadcast programs reportedly developed stronger alignments with political parties after the principle requiring broadcasters to ensure political fairness was abolished in 1987. The U.S. experience should be researched and assessed to see whether such concerns are warranted.

There have also been calls for caution from within Abe’s ruling coalition. Fumio Kishida, policy chief of the Liberal Democratic Party, said doing away with Article 4 should be carefully discussed in view of the law’s role in ensuring political fairness in broadcast content. Komeito leader Natsuo Yamaguchi warned that broadcasters might lose the people’s trust if they are allowed to solely pursue commercial profit.

Hiroko Ota, chairman of the regulatory reform council, cited “a business model that merges telecommunication and broadcasting,” “providing diverse and high-quality broadcast programs” and a “system toward effective use of radio waves” as the agenda of discussions on reform of the broadcast business — and said abolishing Article 4 “has never been discussed” by the panel.

How the regulatory regime of the broadcast business should be reformed under the industry’s changing environment should be the subject of broad discussions from a variety of perspectives, and a hasty conclusion should be avoided. And in that process, the interests of viewers should be given the utmost consideration.

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