Crisis of democracy in Japan?

Japan ranked 61st among 180 countries in the 2015 World Press Freedom Index, compiled by Reporters Without Borders (RWB), a Paris-based watchdog. It ranked 11th among 173 countries in 2010, but its position deteriorated quickly to 53rd among 178 countries in both 2012 and 2013. Furthermore, it was down to 59th among 180 countries in 2014, meaning that its ranking dropped from 11th to 61st just in five years. In compiling the index, RWB evaluates a range of criteria such as “media pluralism and independence, respect for the safety and freedom of journalists, and the legislative, institutional and infrastructural environment in which the media operate.”(http://index.rsf.org/)

Why such a sharp drop in freedom of the press in Japan in recent years? The deteriorating situation coincided with the re-emergence of Shinzo Abe as prime minister in 2012. He had once held the post just for a year from Sept. 2006, from which he stepped down for health reasons. It is interesting to note that Japan ranked 37th among 161 countries in 2005, but worsened to 51st in 2006, after which it improved to 37th in 2007 and further up to 17th in 2009 and 11th in 2010.

Regarding media pluralism, one of the criteria considered by RWB, I feel our society used to be open enough to allow newspapers, and TV stations affiliated with them, with a range of political views to operate freely. However, the established media with critical views toward the policies being pushed by Shinzo Abe and the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) are reported to be under increasing pressure from them. In recent months, for example, it was reported that Shigeaki Koga, a former bureaucrat turned political commentator critical of Abe, had been removed from a TV Asahi news show under the pressure from them. There were other cases involving other broadcasters in which political bullying was rumored to have been behind in the ousting of certain individuals from news programs.

Abe and LDP’s attempt to intimidate and muzzle the media having negative views toward them extends not only to Japanese journalists but also to foreign correspondents (e.g. see “Confessions of a foreign correspondent after a half-decade of reporting from Tokyo to his German readers” by Carsten Germis of Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung which appeared in Number 1 Shimbun, April 02, 2015, after completing his assignment). Germis wrote in the article that Japan as he had known soon after his arrival in Tokyo and the country he left after five years of assignment had changed considerably.

For example, according to him, foreign journalists had often been invited to the Kantei, the PM’s official residence, where current issues were openly discussed when the Democratic Party of Japan was in power. After Dec. 2012, however, he felt no appreciation for openness on the part of Abe’s administration. Although foreign correspondents had a long list of issues to be clarified and elaborated on by the government, there was no willingness shown by the government to talk with them. Yet, anyone who wrote articles critical of Abe’s policies was identified as a “Japan basher.”

Furthermore, citing his own experience, Germis claims that today even the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is involved in exerting pressure on journalists. After he wrote an article critical of Abe’s historical revisionism, “the paper’s senior foreign policy editor was visited by the Japanese consul general of Frankfurt, who passed on objections from Tokyo.” This diplomat complained that the Chinese had used his article for their anti-Japanese propaganda. Worse, he even insulted him, the editor and the entire paper by insinuating that the journalist must have been paid by Beijing. According to him, this kind of behavior on the part of diplomats was unthinkable five years ago.

Such behavior from Abe’s camp make a mockery out of freedom of the press and people’s right to know, the fundamentals of democracy. Leading to and up till the end of WWII, people had been kept in the dark or silenced by the press controlled and manipulated by the militaristic government of those days and as a result ordinary citizens ended up paying heavy price. That is why journalists and citizens have nurtured over the last 70 years the basics of democracy. However, we witnessed a rollback in this respect in Dec. 2013 when the law on the Protection of Specially Designated Secrets, or commonly known as a secrecy law, was enacted. It was aimed at preventing civil servants from “leaking” whatever the government deems to be “national secrets.” However, journalists and many people claim that it curtails their right to know.

The institutional mechanism to secure independence of the media in Japan is also far from being adequate. For example, the head of NHK (the Japan Broadcasting Corporation), the public broadcaster funded by TV reception fees levied on all households possessing a television, is appointed by the prime minister, rather than being chosen by an independent commission.

The current head of NHK, Katsuto Momii, appointed by Shinzo Abe in Jan. 2014 for a three-year term, has been widely criticized for his views considered as not suitable for the post. While having to be independent and impartial, he stated he would not be able to say “left” when the government says “right.” This was his response to a question concerning the territorial issues between Japan with China and South Kores at the very first press conference upon his appointment. In another occasion, he was asked if NHK would broadcast a thoroughly investigative report on the highly controversial issue of “comfort women” from the WWII era. He replied “no” on the ground that the government position on it had not been firmly established. No wonder, lots of people feel that he is not suitable to head the public broadcaster which should be independent of the government.

The latest incident showing Abe administration’s increasing attempt to muzzle the media was exposed in late June. According to a leaked report from a closed “study” meeting involving about 40 junior lawmakers from LDP, close to Abe, held at the party HQs, the attendants apparently discussed how the two newspapers popularly supported in Okinawa, which are highly critical of Abe’s military policies, should be destroyed. Abe first shrugged off the criticism from the opposition parties regarding the behavior of his party members disrespectful of democracy, saying that the comments had been made in a private gathering. However, as media criticism grew wider and louder on this matter, he was eventually forced to apologize to the people of Okinawa, admitting that he was ultimately responsible for the comments made at the LDP HQs.

In view of the above, the sharp drop in Japan’s ranking in World Press Freedom Index in the last five years is understandable. But we should not just sit and allow our situation to deteriorate further. Both journalists and ordinary citizens need to be aware of what is happening and must reclaim our fundamental rights under democracy, guaranteed by our constitution since the end of WWII. Otherwise, we will one day wake up, realizing that our society has gone back to the dark era.

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