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April 11, 2016 - Updated on July 4, 2016

RSF concerned about declining media freedom in Japan


Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has evaluated the current state of media freedom and freedom of information in Japan ahead of this week’s visit by David Kaye, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression.

RSF draws Kaye’s attention to the decline in media freedom in Japan since Shinzo Abe became prime minister again in December 2012. The Abe administration’s threats to media independence, the turnover in media personnel in recent months and the increase in self-censorship within leading media outlets are endangering the underpinnings of democracy in Japan.

The latest disturbing sign of government pressure on the media is public TV broadcaster NHK’s dismissal of current affairs presenter Hiroko Kuniya, which has caused widespread dismay among journalists. She hosted “Close Up Gendai,” one of the few NHK programmes to contain investigative reporting and analysis. Her interview of chief cabinet secretary Yoshihide Suga in July 2014 has been cited as one of the reasons for her contract’s termination last month.

Other journalists have been the subjects of presumably forced departures. They include Shigetada Kishii, a Mainichi News journalist and anchor of the “News 23” programme on the TBS channel, who criticized the proposed security legislation at the end of last year, and Ichiro Furutachi, a well-known government critic who presented TV Asahi’s “Hodo Station” programme.

“Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government seems to be taking less and less account of media freedom and the public’s right to information,” said Benjamin Ismaïl, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk.

“The special rapporteur must raise the issue of government meddling in the editorial policies of Japan’s public broadcasting service. We also urge him to examine the legislative framework governing the media, the law on state secrets and the constitution, whose revision could pose an additional threat to media freedom.”

The government has not hidden its hostility towards critical coverage. Addressing parliament on 8 February, communication minister Sanae Takaichi threatened to shut down broadcasters that continue to air “biased political reports.”

Questioned by journalists the next day, Takaichi reiterated her threat, citing article 4 of the TV broadcasting law, which prohibits distorting the facts, and article 76 of the law on radio broadcasting, which allows the communications minister to issue closure orders without reference to a judge.

Conservative businessman Katsuo Momii’s appointment as NHK’s president in 2014 was seen as a government attempt to control news coverage. Momii caused a controversy when he said NHK should not “deviate from the government’s position in its programming.” He also supported adoption of the law on the protection of state secrets.

In June 2015, members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party urged the government to punish critical media outlets by pressuring advertisers to withdraw business from them.

Finally, inclusion of the concept of “harming the public interest and public order” in a proposed constitutional amendment could provide a mechanism for curbing free speech and media freedom. Introduced with any further details, this notion could be exploited by officials to arbitrarily brand media reports and opinions as threats to the nation.

The special rapporteur was originally supposed to have visited Japan in December 2015 but the government asked him to postpone the visit. Many observers suggested that this was because the government wanted to avoid any discussion of the law on the “Protection of Specially Designated Secrets.”

This law provides for sentences of up to 10 years in prison for whistleblowers who leak “state secrets” and for journalists and bloggers who report information they obtained “illegally” or sought from whistleblowers.

Japan is ranked 61st out of 180 countries in the 2015 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index.