The “Inconvenient Truth” Behind Japan’s Toothless Media

Politics Society

Internal Affairs and Communications Minister Takaichi Sanae caused a stir in February with a comment that broadcasters continuing to air politically biased programs may be shut down. Pressure from the Abe administration continues to mount, but the media has been hesitant to fight back.

Questions from Press-Club Members Only

Following Abe Shinzō’s uncontested reelection as Liberal Democratic Party president in September 2015, a news conference was held at the LDP headquarters. Then LDP Chief Deputy Secretary-General Hagiuda Kōichi, who was emceeing the session, announced that the party president would make his “opening greeting,” take questions from the supervising members of the Hirakawa Club—the press club for the LDP—and then, if time allowed, from other club members. Abe’s “greeting” took up 15 of the 30 minutes allotted for the conference, as he spoke at length about his achievements and goals. After this, the two rotating supervising organizations made their questions, and Hagiuda then opened the floor to questions—but only from Hirakawa Club members.

The arrangement was quite unnatural. There are few opportunities to directly question Prime Minister Abe, yet no one protested the fact that such an opportunity was cut in half due to a 15-minute opening statement. And none of the broadcasters who ran the news of the party election made a reference to this point.

Deteriorating Freedom of the Press

Hagiuda’s second remark limiting questions to members of the Hirakawa Club was even more disturbing. During the three years through December 2012 that the Democratic Party of Japan was in power, news conferences had become less restrictive, with the door being opened to web journalists, foreign media, and freelancers. The Abe administration, too, followed suit—at least on the surface—no doubt hoping to appear sensible and to avoid being accused of curtailing freedom of the press. But recently, no matter how often web journalists raise their hands, they are rarely called. The LDP appears to have adopted a subtle, “operational” approach to narrowing the door on web journalists in particular.

Hagiuda’s blanket rejection of nonmember participation, though, was tantamount to an open declaration of discriminatory policy. Jinbō Tetsuo, editor-in-chief of the Video News Network (—a rare ad-free web broadcaster in Japan—commented that “the symptoms have become one stage worse.”

Japan’s ranking in the annual World Press Freedom Index, published by the nonprofit Reporters Without Borders, hovered between 26th and 51st from 2002 to 2008—the rather low rankings being ascribed to the closed nature of Japan’s press club system. After the DPJ came to power in 2009, Japan climbed to as high as 11th in 2010, but it subsequently fell to 53rd in 2012 and 61st in 2015. (The 2016 index released on April 20 ranked Japan 11 spots lower at 72nd.—Ed.)

This was partly in response to insufficient disclosure of information following the March 2011 Fukushima nuclear accident and the enactment of the Act on the Protection of Specially Designated Secrets (State Secrecy Law) in 2013. The Abe cabinet appears unperturbed by international opinion regarding its efforts to strengthen control of the media.

Call for Impartiality

Even before the LDP press conference, Hagiuda has been a source of a tightening media squeeze. In November 2014, a month before a general election for members of the House of Representatives, he handed a letter to senior TV news editors of network stations in Tokyo requesting fair and impartial coverage of the election campaign. At a glance, the request seems reasonable enough, but the impact was actually quite intimidating. After all, such a letter would have been unnecessary had the sender believed that election coverage was already impartial. As an example of biased reporting, the letter referred to the uproar caused by a news broadcaster’s admission that he had “directed” his station to deliberately bias its reports in order to encourage a change of government. In 1993, private comments by then TV Asahi news division head Tsubaki Sadayoshi encouraging (but not actually directing) favorable coverage of non-LDP parties were leaked, prompting his testimony in the Diet. The letter also calls for fairness in the selection of guest commentators and in how often and how long they are allowed to speak.

The broadcasting industry falls under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, and the LDP has no business telling the industry what to do. Yet no public protests were made, and most broadcasters did not even willingly acknowledge that they had received such a letter.

Lack of Industry Criticism

Political pressure on the media continued with the questioning of executives from NHK and TV Asahi on April 17, 2015, by the LDP’s Research Commission on Info-Communications Strategy about alleged violations of the Broadcast Act. NHK was asked about a May 14, 2014, Close-up Gendai report on a financial scam in which brokers helped people with debts to enter the priesthood; an interview on the program was suspected of having been fabricated by the reporter. TV Asahi, meanwhile, was questioned about a remark made on the air by a news commentator that he has been under pressure from Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga Yoshihide.

The LDP research commission had no authority to summon the executives, but neither broadcaster objected to the interrogation, and none of the other stations lodged a protest.

The results of an internal investigation by NHK denying the fabrication charge were published 10 days later. On the same day, Takaichi Sanae, the minister of internal affairs and communications, issued a “stern warning” to the public broadcaster without taking the time to scrutinize the report. Such warnings about programming content are seldom issued, the previous example being in 2009, and the last to come from the minister being in 2007. Media reaction was subdued, though, with most TV stations simply reporting the facts.

Oddly, criticism came not from the broadcasters themselves but from an independent media-watch body established by the industry called the Broadcasting Ethics and Program Improvement Organization (BPO). None of its three committees charged with monitoring various aspects of the industry include TV station executives or employees. In November 2015, the BPO’s Committee for the Investigation of Broadcasting Ethics issued an opinion noting that Close-up Gendai, contrary to the conclusions of NHK’s internal report, contained sloppy interviews falling below the expected quality standards of news programs and in grave violation of broadcasting ethics. At the same time, it pointed out that Minister Takaichi’s warning failed to respect historical precedent and criticized the summoning of broadcasting executives as “pressure against freedom of the press.”

A New Legal Interpretation?

In a lower house budget committee meeting in February 2016, Takaichi noted that Article 4 of the Broadcast Act stipulates that broadcasters shall be “politically fair” and that the internal affairs minister shall determine whether this provision is being upheld. The minister is also legally authorized, she pointed out, to order stations and networks that repeatedly violate the law to suspend broadcasting operations.

The view that violations of Article 4 can be used as a pretext for the suspension of broadcasting operations deviates from the interpretation traditionally held by constitutional law experts, who see the provision as a voluntary “code of ethics” by which broadcasters abide in editing their programs. When pressed on this point in the Diet, though, Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga described Takaichi’s comments as a matter of course, and Prime Minister Abe concurred, noting that Takaichi was simply expressing a commonly held view.

Do they really believe what they are saying, or are they simply ignorant? In either case, the media chose not to protest, the only ones expressing their discontent being six newscasters who held a news conference in late February.

Fear of Losing Hidden Privileges

Why are Japan’s media organizations so docile? The answer is quite simple, as far as TV broadcasters are concerned: they do not wish to antagonize the Internal Affairs and Communication Ministry, which oversees the industry, nor the LDP, whose members exert influence on the ministry. The Japanese broadcasting system has a blatant flaw; when the legal framework for the industry was enacted in 1950—while Japan was still under Allied Occupation—oversight of broadcasting stations was entrusted to a committee that was independent of the government. The committee was abolished two years later by Prime Minister Yoshida Shigeru, though, allowing the government to exercise supervision directly.

One of journalism’s main tasks is to monitor the use of power, but in Japan the tables are turned, with the government monitoring the broadcasters. Because the LDP has been in power for so many years, some members have acquired a big say in broadcasting policy. And while the influence of such lobbies have waned in recent years, they still have a powerful voice. Unlike major Western media groups, whose shares are held privately, Japan’s broadcasting networks are publicly listed. Many broadcasting executives have been unwilling to stick their necks out in the name of good journalism for fear of government intervention and of potentially sustaining losses as a consequence.

Japan’s five major national newspapers, moreover, are each affiliated with a commercial broadcasting network through cross-shareholding arrangements, and staff writers at these dailies have, in the past, sought favors from the government and the LDP in expediting licensing and approval proceedings for affiliated local stations.

The newspaper industry is also indebted to the Abe administration for its decision to exempt it from a higher rate when the consumption tax is scheduled to be hiked to 10% in April 2017. This has made it more difficult for these papers to openly criticize the administration’s policies.

Traditional media’s preferential access to information under the press club system is a vested privilege that these media groups are reluctant to relinquish. This is an additional factor behind the media’s weak-kneed response to the demands of politicians. While the DPJ succeeded in opening up press conferences, it was unable to do the same with press clubs. The real benefits of press club membership come not from attending press conferences but in having access to off-the-record briefings by notable news sources.

These briefings, frequently given by powerful politicians, enable the sharing of personal views on and true reactions to political agendas and developments. This is privileged information that can have a direct impact on the tone of subsequent articles and on news coverage planning. Briefings restricted to press club members are also given by relevant government ministries prior to important international conferences. Open criticism of government policy runs the risk of being shut out—if only temporarily—of such inside information.

These are some of the reasons for the news media’s compliance with the wishes of government. In fact, Abe has been dining with major media executives with greater frequency than any other prime minister in history.

Of the six newscasters who held a press conference protesting Takaichi’s remarks, five also spoke at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan on March 24, where they were showered with questions about the Japanese media and its cowardly response to a statement as banal as that made by the internal affairs minister. In the end, the foreign reporters remained unconvinced by the explanations given by the speakers.

The media in Japan appears incapable of fulfilling its independent, watchdog role because it is grasping on to hidden privileges that it does not want to lose.

(Originally written in Japanese and published on April 7, 2016. Banner photo: Commercial TV newscasters hold up a banner on February 29, 2016, protesting Takaichi Sanae’s remarks that the government is authorized to suspend operations of broadcasters that ignore calls for political neutrality. © Jiji Press.)

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