Five Japanese journalists accused Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government on Thursday of pressuring broadcasters to reduce criticism of its policies, but also lamented what they called a failure by media to live up to their convictions.
They spoke at a news conference after Minister of Internal Affairs and Communications Sanae Takaichi warned broadcasters last month that their licenses could be revoked if they failed to be impartial in political coverage.
Japan’s broadcast law says programs must be “politically fair,” and Takaichi said several times in parliament that a station that repeatedly fails in this regard could have its license revoked. Despite multiple protests that her comments constituted a threat to freedom of the press, she has not backed down.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, the government’s top spokesman, also has defended her comments as “common sense.”
The journalists said both Takaichi’s comments and the government response have been unacceptable, and vowed to continue their protest.
Abe’s government has been criticized as being too sensitive to critical reporting. Media experts say mainstream media have been shunning critical reporting to avoid trouble with officials who are increasingly touchy about how Japan and government policies are portrayed by both domestic and foreign media.
“Of all ruling Liberal Democratic Party governments, the Abe administration is most nervously checking what the media say, because what’s said on television affects his support ratings,” said Shuntaro Torigoe, a former Mainichi newspaper journalist and news anchor on TV Asahi. “In Japan today, rather than the media watching the authorities, the government watches the media.”
The journalists also said media outlets haven’t fought hard enough for press freedom.
“It’s not so much about political pressure, it’s about deterioration in the media,” said Soichiro Tahara, one of Japan’s most respected journalists, who is known for asking tough questions to politicians. “To me, the most serious problem is self-restraint by higher-ups at broadcast stations.”
The resignation of three outspoken newscasters this month has prompted further speculation of interference from the government as it attempts to build public support for contentious policies, such as a broadening of Japan’s military role and a revision of the war-renouncing constitution.
Shigetada Kishii, an anchor for the Tokyo Broadcasting System Television’s popular program News 23, has announced he is stepping down as of March 31. Kishii told the news conference that media seem to be increasingly intimidated, but he has never been directly pressured by the government or higher-ups at the broadcaster.
Kishii angered Abe supporters last year when he voiced his opposition to security legislation allowing Japan’s military to defend the U.S. and other allies under attack. He was later criticized in ads placed by ultra-conservative groups, saying he violated the broadcast law.
Another respected journalist, Hiroko Kuniya, a presenter for NHK public television’s prime-time news show Close-up Gendai, angered Suga when she pressed him with unscripted questions about the security legislation, reportedly triggering a strong protest from the Prime Minister’s Office. Following her last appearance on the show last week, Kuniya issued a statement to Japanese media saying that “expressing things has gradually become difficult,” without elaborating.
Last year, Abe’s ruling party summoned an executive of the liberal-leaning TV Asahi over its political coverage, and another from NHK over a separate allegation of staged material in a news program.
Even though there is no evidence directly connecting Takaichi’s remark with the resignation of the three newscasters, her warning was enough to scare Japan’s media, journalists say.
“It’s a measure that the Chinese government might take, but there is a (Japanese) minister who nonchalantly says that may happen here. It’s utterly shocking,” respected journalist Akira Ikegami wrote in a column in the Asahi newspaper last month. “It was a remark that could even topple the government in a Western democracy.”
Can Japan’s media resist the pressure?
Torigoe said he is not optimistic. “I don’t know,” he said after the news conference. “Younger journalists don’t seem to have a fighting spirit.”
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