The Threat to Press Freedom in Japan

During a press conference in March, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga expressed concern over comments I had made during a program on TV Asahi, a major private broadcasting network: I had announced that I would no longer be appearing on the show after being subjected to “fierce bashing” from the prime minister’s office. According to the daily Asahi Shimbun, Mr. Suga said, “We will closely watch how the TV station handles the issue in line with the Broadcast Law” — a veiled threat to revoke the station’s license.

On April 17, a special panel of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (L.D.P.) held a special meeting at party headquarters and summoned executives of both TV Asahi and NHK, a public broadcaster, to discuss two TV programs the party thought had been critical of the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

After I appeared on Tokyo MX TV, a local station, on April 25, an executive member of the L.D.P. reportedly told some journalists, “I heard that there was a TV station which allowed Mr. Koga to appear on a program. What a courageous TV station, I should say!”

And so it is that the Japanese government tampers with the media’s independence. This is happening partly because of longstanding structural characteristics that govern the relationship between the media and the state in Japan. But the Abe government has been especially aggressive in using those to its advantage, and major segments of the industry are quickly internalizing its preferences.

Instead of pushing back against Mr. Suga’s intimidation, for example, TV Asahi reprimanded the employees who had produced the TV program during which I criticized the government. And instead of invoking the anti-interference provisions of the broadcasting laws to resist questioning by the L.D.P., those TV executives complied with the party’s summons.

In Japan, relations between the state and journalists are formally maintained through a network of reporters’ clubs, or kisha kurabu. There is a reporters’ club for each ministry, each local government, each political party, each industry association. Membership in the clubs is generally limited to reporters at major media companies. Typically, only members are allowed to attend the press conferences, and only members have access to the organizations’ officials. In return for endowing reporters with this privileged status, the officials take it for granted that their organizations will get favorable coverage. And very often they do.

Another problem is that the media in Japan is not regulated by an independent agency. For example, it is the government itself — specifically the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications — that grants licenses to TV stations, and these are up for renewal regularly. Consequently, TV stations are under constant supervision and fear losing their right to operate if they challenge the government. Given Japan’s parliamentary system, this means that the ruling political parties themselves have a large influence over broadcasting.

What’s more, there is virtually no separation of management and the newsroom at major media companies. A company’s chairman or president will often micromanage news coverage, or even the behavior of individual reporters. Few of them dare to challenge such intrusions because of the Japanese employment system: Historically, a job at a leading media company has meant security and a very high salary until retirement. Many journalists, recognizing that their bosses are obedient to the government and themselves eager to protect their own careers, hesitate to be critical of the government. Company loyalty trumps the professional ethics of independent journalism.

This system hardly is new. It has been in place since before World War II, and an independent agency regulating the media that was established by the Allied forces during the occupation was abolished in 1952 by Japanese conservatives. But recently the government has applied pressure on the media to an unprecedented extent. Under the Abe administration, the top executives of major media companies go out for fine meals or to play golf with the prime minister and high-ranking government officials. And they are unabashed about making this known to the public.

Last November, soon before the general election, the L.D.P. sent so-called request letters to major TV stations, enjoining them to ensure that their coverage would “not be one-sided” and with instructions on how to select topics to cover and commentators to interview. The party wrote to one station to complain that one of its programs had suggested Mr. Abe’s economic policies benefited only wealthy people — a view shared by many Japanese, according to opinion polls.

How can the media act as a government watchdog under such conditions? The Abe administration’s treatment of journalists is worthy of an authoritarian state, not the liberal democracy Japan is supposed to be.

Shigeaki Koga, a bureaucrat in the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry of Japan from 1980 to 2011, is a writer and commentator.

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