Japanese media under siege

Volume 4, No. 12, December 2016

Author: Jeff Kingston, Temple University Japan

Between 2010 and 2016, Japan plunged from 11th to 72nd out of 180 nations in Reporters Without Borders’ global media freedom ranking.

Editors, managers and publishers want to avoid the risks associated with confronting powerful interests.

Being a journalist in Japan does not put you at risk of beatings, imprisonment and murder like other countries ranked comparably low on media freedoms. But there are other ways to curtail press freedom and induce self-censorship, especially when editors, managers and publishers want to avoid the risks associated with confronting powerful interests.

Curtailing press freedom, encroaching on freedom of expression and purging critical journalists is hardly unique to Japan. Yet the situation has become significantly worse under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, with an intensification of the various media-restricting initiatives that were only episodically invoked by his predecessors.

This decline can be traced to the passage of ‘state secrecy’ legislation in 2013 along with a series of media-muzzling initiatives, orchestrated campaigns of harassment and the ousting of prominent television news anchors and commentators critical of Abe. In April 2016 these sweeping moves caught the attention of David Kaye — the UN special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression — who blasted the censorship, weak legal protections, press clubs and media intimidation in Japan.

The Abe government is keen to clip its wings and has been aggressively going after critics of government security policies.

The power of the media to make or break governments is precisely why the Abe government is keen to clip its wings and has been aggressively going after critics of government security policies. In an off-the-record meeting with journalists in February 2015, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga criticised coverage by TV Asahi. Later that month, Shigeaki Koga — a popular television pundit — was axed from TV Asahi’s Hodo Station news program.

Later in 2015, NHK 9 PM news anchor Kensuke Okoshi was ousted for his critical commentary and clash with an Abe crony. In 2016, three other prominent newscasters critical of Abe (NHK’s Hiroko Kuniya, TV Asahi’s Ichiro Furutachi and TBS’s Shigetada Kishii) left their jobs amid claims of government pressure.

The Abe government relies on select media organisations and right-wing groups to assail its opponents. In 2014 there was an orchestrated campaign, including death threats against reporters, by neo-nationalist groups denouncing the liberal newspaper Asahi Shimbun for its coverage of the comfort women story. This vendetta enjoyed public support from Abe.

In August 2014, the Asahi issued a ‘mea culpa’ for its coverage of the comfort women story, apologising for a handful of stories published in the 1980s and 1990s that relied on the discredited testimony of a WWII veteran. Right-wing outlets like The Yomiuri Shimbun and Sankei Shimbun pounced on this admission of wrongdoing even though they had also published articles relying on the same fabrications. They used this issue to discredit the Asahi and to promote the revisionist narrative that minimises, excuses or denies Japan’s history with comfort women.

Investigative journalism is becoming an endangered species in Japan.

To make matters worse, investigative journalism is becoming an endangered species in Japan. The Kisha (press club) system embeds journalists within ministries, agencies and other organisations they are assigned to cover, giving them privileged access to official sources. But in order to maintain this access they are inevitably handicapped from divulging most of what they know. The collaboration and collusion implicit in this system discourages ‘watchdog’ investigative journalism aimed at uncovering what authorities don’t want the public to know. Unfortunately the mainstream media embraces this system and the exclusive access it ensures.

It wasn’t always this way. The Asahi was previously a bastion of opposition to Abe’s agenda of constitutional revision and patriotic education. The newspaper’s critical commentary and investigative journalism won the Japanese equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize for its post-2011 investigative reporting on the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

But this watchdog journalism made it a target of the ‘nuclear village’ — proponents of nuclear power in industry, government, unions, media and academia. The Asahi’s withering coverage exposed the inadequate safety measures and cost cutting at the Fukushima power plant that compromised public safety, an inconvenient story as Abe wants to rev up Japan’s idled nuclear reactors.

In a controversial 2014 scoop based on an interview with the plant manager about the exodus of workers in the wake of the meltdowns, the Asahi overstated the situation, exposing itself to charges of sensationalism. Given the previous hammering that the newspaper received over its reporting on comfort women and experiencing a sharp decline in circulation at that time, management was in damage control mode. As a result, it retracted the exodus story, punished key reporters on the investigative team and disbanded it.

It is reassuring that Japan’s press continues to play a powerful role in keeping the public well-informed and critically assessing Abe’s revisionist project. But the purge of critics and decline in investigative reporting is a worrisome development that undermines Japan’s democratic identity.

About the author

Jeff Kingston is Director of Asian Studies at Temple University Japan and editor of the forthcoming Press Freedom in Japan (2017).

Image taken by Marcus Tièschky and sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

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