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UN body calls on Japan to improve protection of press freedoms

GENEVA (Kyodo) — A U.N. body on Thursday called on Japan to take steps to better protect press freedoms as concerns about the country’s laws aimed at curtailing leaks of state secrets could hinder the work of journalists.
In another of the 218 non-legally binding recommendations on Japan’s human rights record released by the U.N. Human Rights Council’s working group, Tokyo was urged to apologize and pay compensation to “comfort women” forced to work in Japan’s World War II military brothels.
The recommendations reflected the views of some 105 countries. Of the issues raised, the U.N. council will adopt those that have been accepted by the country in question at a plenary session around March 2018.
In relation to freedom of the press in Japan, the recommendation called on the country to amend Article 4 of the broadcasting law that gives the government authority to suspend broadcasting licenses of TV stations not considered “politically fair.”
Japan had already attracted criticism, in particular from David Kaye, U.N. special rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression, over its law called the Act on the Protection of Specially Designated Secrets, which came into force in 2014.
Under the law, civil servants or others who leak designated secrets could face up to 10 years in prison, and those who instigate leaks, including journalists, could be subject to prison terms of up to five years.
In his report, Kaye noted that the law may be arbitrarily enforced as subcategories under which information may be designated as secret are “overly broad.”
On the issue of “comfort women,” raised at the request of South Korea and China, the recommendation urged Japan to promote fair and accurate historical education, including the women’s stories, and to apologize and compensate victims.
The recommendation also said Japan should abolish or suspend the death penalty, reflecting calls from European Union countries, and continue to provide support to those affected by the Fukushima nuclear crisis caused by the massive 2011 earthquake and tsunami. In particular, a directive to address health issues faced by pregnant mothers and children was noted.
The U.N. Rights Council is mandated to “undertake a universal periodic review” of whether countries are meeting their human rights obligations and commitments.
The examination is conducted on all 193 members of the United Nations in periodic cycles of a few years. The latest review was the third for Japan. exclusive report from yesterday on the UN meeting;

November 18, 2017 Posted by | Fukushima 2017 | , , | Leave a comment

To Censor Fukushima, Japanese Government Emasculated Watchdog Journalism


Members of the media, wearing white protective suits and masks, walk after they receive a briefing from Tokyo Electric Power Co. employees during a tour of the tsunami-crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant on February 10, 2016.

It seemed like compelling journalism: a major investigative story published by The Asahi Shimbun, Japan’s second largest daily newspaper, about workers fleeing the Fukushima nuclear plant against orders.

It was the work of a special investigative section that had been launched with much fanfare to regain readers’ trust after the triple meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in March 2011, when the Asahi and other media were criticized for initially repeating the official line that the government had everything safely under control.

The team had been producing award winning journalism for three years, but the story on the workers would be the last for some of its ace reporters. And its publication in May 2014 would come to mark the demise of one of the most serious efforts in recent memory by a major Japanese news organization to embrace a more independent approach to journalism.

The hastiness of the Asahi’s retreat raised fresh doubts about whether such watchdog journalism—an inherently risky enterprise that seeks to expose and debunk, and challenge the powerful—is even possible in Japan’s big national media, which are deeply tied to the nation’s political establishment.

The editors at Asahi, considered the “quality paper” favored by intellectuals, knew the culture they were facing, but they saw the public disillusionment in Japan that followed the nuclear plant disaster as the opportunity launch a bold experiment to reframe journalism.

No more pooches

On the sixth floor of its hulking headquarters overlooking Tokyo’s celebrated fish market, the newspaper in October 2011 hand-picked 30 journalists to create a desk dedicated to investigative reporting, something relatively rare in a country whose big national media favor cozy ties with officials via so-called press clubs. The clubs are exclusive groups of journalists, usually restricted to those from major newspapers and broadcasters, who are stationed within government ministries and agencies, ostensibly to keep a close eye on authority. In reality, the clubs end up doing the opposite, turning the journalists into uncritical conduits for information and narratives put forth by government officials, whose mindset the journalists often end up sharing.

The choice to head of the new section was unusual: Takaaki Yorimitsu, a gruff, gravelly-voiced outsider who was not a career employee of the elitist Asahi, and had been head-hunted from a smaller regional newspaper for his investigative prowess. Yorimitsu set an iconoclastic tone by taping a sign to the newsroom door declaring “Datsu Pochi Sengen,” or “No More Pooches Proclamation”—a vow that his reporters would no longer be kept pets of the press clubs, but true journalistic watchdogs.

The Investigative Reporting Section proved an instant success, winning Japan’s top journalism award two years in a row for its exposure of official coverups and shoddy decontamination work around the nuclear plant.

The new section gave reporters a broad mandate to range across the Asahi’s rigid internal silos in search of topics, while also holding to higher journalistic standards, such as requiring using the names of people quoted in stories instead of the pseudonyms common in Japanese journalism.

The Investigative Reporting Section proved an instant success, winning Japan’s top journalism award two years in a row for its exposure of official coverups and shoddy decontamination work around the nuclear plant, which was crippled when a huge earthquake and tsunami knocked out vital cooling systems. The section’s feistier journalism offered hope of attracting younger readers at a time when the 7 million-reader Asahi and Japan’s other national dailies, the world’s largest newspapers by circulation, were starting to feel the pinch from declining sales.

The Asahi Shimbun believes such investigative reporting is indispensable,” the newspaper’s president at the time, Tadakazu Kimura, declared in an annual report in 2012. The new investigative section “does not rely on information obtained from press clubs, but rather conducts its own steadfast investigations that require real determination.”

That is why it was all the more jarring when, just two years later, the Asahi abruptly retreated from this foray into watchdog reporting. In September 2014, the newspaper retracted the story it had published in May about workers fleeing the Fukushima plant against orders, punishing reporters and editors responsible for the story, slashing the size of the new section’s staff and forcing the resignation of Kimura, who had supported the investigative push.


IITATE, JAPAN – MAY 23: No entry sign in the contaminated area after the daiichi nuclear power plant irradiation, fukushima prefecture, iitate, Japan on May 23, 2016 in Iitate, Japan.

A newspaper-appointed committee of outside experts later declared that the article, which the Asahi had trumpeted as a historic scoop, was flawed because journalists had demonstrated “an excessive sense of mission that they ‘must monitor authority.’”

While the section was not closed down altogether, its output of major investigative articles dropped sharply as the remaining journalists were barred from writing about Fukushima.

Emasculating the Asahi

The abrupt about-face by the Asahi, a 137-year-old newspaper with 2,400 journalists that has been postwar Japan’s liberal media flagship, was was an early victory for the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, which had sought to silence critical voices as it moved to roll back Japan’s postwar pacifism, and restart its nuclear industry.

In Japanese journalism, scoops usually just mean learning from the ministry officials today what they intend to do tomorrow,” said Makoto Watanabe, a former reporter in the section who quit the Asahi in March because he felt blocked from doing investigative reporting. “We came up with different scoops that were unwelcome in the Prime Minister’s Office.”

Abe and his supporters on the nationalistic right seized on missteps by the Asahi in its coverage of Fukushima and sensitive issues of World War II-era history to launch a withering barrage of criticism that the paper seemed unable to withstand. The taming of the Asahi set off a domino-like series of moves by major newspapers and television networks to remove outspoken commentators and newscasters.

Political interference in the media was one reason cited by Reporters Without Borders in lowering Japan from 11th in 2010 to 72nd out of 180 nations in this year’s annual ranking of global press freedoms, released on April 20, 2016.

Emasculating the Asahi allowed Abe to impose a grim new conformity on the media world,” said Koichi Nakano, a professor of politics at Sophia University in Tokyo and a leading critic of the administration on press freedom issues. “Other media know that once Asahi gave in, they were exposed and could be next. So they gagged themselves.”

But government pressure fails to fully explain the Asahi’s retreat. Some Asahi reporters and media scholars say the government was able to exploit weaknesses within Japanese journalism itself, particularly its lack of professional solidarity and its emphasis on access-driven reporting. At the Asahi’s weakest moment, other big national newspapers lined up to bash it, essentially doing the administration’s dirty work, while also making blatant efforts to poach readers to shore up their declining circulations.

The knockout blow, however, came from within the Asahi itself, as reporters in other, more established sections turned against the upstart investigative journalists. The new section’s more adversarial approach to journalism had earned it wide resentment for threatening the exclusive access—enjoyed by the Asahi as part of the mainstream media—to the administration and the powerful central ministries that govern Japan.

Media scholars say reporters in elite national newspapers like the Asahi have a weak sense of professional identity; most did not attend journalism school and spend their entire careers within the same company. Until recently, a job at a national daily was seen as a safe career bet rather than a calling, as the Asahi and its competitors offered salaries and lifetime job guarantees similar to banks and automakers.

This result is that many Japanese journalists are unable to resist pressures that officials can put on them via the press clubs. Journalists who are deemed overly critical or who write about unapproved topics can find themselves barred from briefings given to other club members. This is a potent sanction when careers can be broken for missing a scoop that appeared in rival newspapers. This is what some Asahi journalists in the press clubs say happened to them as the Investigative Section angered government officials with its critical stories.

When the chips were down, they saw themselves as elite company employees, not journalists,” said Yorimitsu, who after the Fukushima article’s retraction was reassigned to a Saturday supplement where he writes entertainment features.

Unable to weather the storm

It was a bitter reversal for a section that had been launched with high expectations just three years before. Yorimitsu described the new section as the newspaper’s first venture into what he called true investigative journalism. He said that while the Asahi had assembled teams in the past that it called “investigative,” this usually meant being freed from the demands of daily reporting to take deeper dives into scandals and social issues. He said the new section was different because his journalists not only gathered facts, they used them to build counter narratives that challenged versions of events put forward by authorities.

Until 2014, the newspaper was very enthusiastic about giving us the time and freedom to expose the misdeeds in Fukushima, and tell our own stories about what had happened,” recalled Yorimitsu. “We were telling the stories that the authorities didn’t want us to tell.”

Yorimitsu had been hired in 2008 in to take charge of a smaller investigative team that the Asahi had created in 2006, when it was first starting to feel the pinch from the Internet. From a peak of 8.4 million copies sold daily in 1997, the Asahi’s circulation had slipped below 8 million by 2006, according to the Japan Audit Bureau of Circulations. (By late 2015, it had dropped to 6.6 million.) The team of 10 reporters was an experimental effort to win readers. “We realized that in the Net era, independent, investigative journalism was the only way for a newspaper to survive,” said Hidetoshi Sotooka, a former managing editor who created the original team.

However, it was not until Fukushima, Japan’s biggest national trauma since its World War II defeat in 1945, that the newspaper wholeheartedly embraced the effort, tripling the number of journalists and elevating it to a full-fledged section, putting it on par organizationally with other, more established parts of the paper.

Under Yorimitsu, the section’s crowning achievement was an investigative series called “The Promethean Trap,” a play on the atomic industry’s early promise of becoming a second fire from heaven like the one stolen by Prometheus in Greek mythology. The series, which appeared daily beginning in October 2011, won The Japan Newspaper Publishers and Editors Association Prize, Japan’s equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize, in 2012 for its reporting on such provocative topics as a gag-order placed on scientists after the nuclear accident, and the government’s failure to release information about radiation to evacuating residents. The series spawned some larger investigative spin-offs, including an exposé of corner-cutting in Japan’s multi-billion dollar radiation cleanup, which won the prize in 2013.


OKUMA, JAPAN – FEBRUARY 25: A TEPCO employee uses a radiation monitor as they show a member of the media a destroyed reactor at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant on February 25, 2016 in Okuma, Japan. Five years on, the decontamination and decommissioning process at the Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s embattled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant continues on February 25, 2016 in Okuma, Japan. March 11, 2016 marks the fifth anniversary of the magnitude 9.0 earthquake and tsunami which claimed the lives of 15,894, and the subsequent damage to the reactors at TEPCO’s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant causing the nuclear disaster which still forces 99,750 people to live as evacuees away from contaminated areas.

These were promising accomplishments for a new section, but they also led to resentment in other parts of the newspaper, where the investigative team was increasingly viewed as prima donnas, and Yorimitsu’s “no more pooches” proclamation as an arrogant dismissal of other sections’ work.

At the same time, the Investigative Section also was making powerful enemies outside the newspaper by exposing problems at Fukushima. This became particularly apparent after the pro-nuclear Abe administration took office in December 2012, when other media started to cut back on articles about the nuclear accident.

We were being told that the Prime Minister’s Office disliked our stories and wanted them stopped,” Watanabe recalled, “but we thought we could weather the storm.”

They may have been able to if the new section had not given its opponents an opening to strike. But on May 20, 2014, running under the banner headline “Violating Plant Manager Orders, 90 Percent of Workers Evacuated Fukushima Daiichi,” the front-page article made the explosive claim that at the peak of the crisis, workers had fled the nuclear plant in violation of orders to remain from plant manager, Masao Yoshida. The article challenged the dominant narrative of the manager leading a heroic battle to contain the meltdowns and thus save Japan.

The reporters behind the story, Hideaki Kimura and Tomomi Miyazaki, had obtained a transcript of testimony that Yoshida gave to government investigators before his death from cancer in 2013. The 400-plus-page document, drawn from 28 hours of spoken testimony by Yoshida, had been kept secret from the public in the Prime Minister’s Office. Unearthing the testimony was an investigative coup, which the Asahi unabashedly played up in ad campaigns. It might have stayed that way, had not the Asahi opened up the floodgates of public criticism by clumsily setting off a completely unrelated controversy about its past coverage of one of East Asia’s most emotional issues.

That uproar began on Aug. 5, 2014  when the Asahi suddenly announced in a front-page article that it was retracting more than a dozen stories published in the 1980s and early 1990s about “comfort women” forced to work in wartime Japanese military brothels. The newspaper was belatedly admitting what historians knew: that a Japanese war veteran quoted in the articles, Seiji Yoshida, had fabricated his claims of having forcibly rounded up more than 1,000 Korean women.

The comfort women retractions appeared to be an attempt by the Asahi to preempt critics in the administration by coming clean about a decades-old problem. Instead, the move backfired, giving the revisionist right ammunition to attack the Asahi. The public pillorying, led by Abe himself, who said the reporting “has caused great damage to Japan’s image,” grew so intense that the magazine of the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan ran a cover story: “Sink the Asahi!”

It was at the peak of this maelstrom, when the Asahi was on the ropes, that criticism of its Fukushima scoop erupted. In late August, the Sankei Shimbun and the Yomiuri Shimbun, both pro-Abe newspapers on the right, obtained copies of Yoshida’s secret testimony, and wrote reports challenging the version of events put forth by the Asahi. “Asahi Report of ‘Evacuating Against Orders’ At Odds With Yoshida Testimony,” the Yomiuri, the world’s largest newspaper with 9 million readers, declared in a front-page headline Aug. 30. Other media, including the liberal Mainichi Shimbun, followed with similar efforts to discredit the Asahi.

According to these stories, the Asahi’s epic scoop had gotten it wrong by implying that the plant workers had knowingly ignored Yoshida’s orders. The newly obtained copies of his testimony showed that his orders had failed to reach the workers in the confusion. The other newspapers accused the Asahi of again sullying Japan’s reputation, by inaccurately portraying the brave Fukushima workers as cowards. (Whether the Asahi got the story wrong is debatable, since its article never actually stated that workers knowingly violated Yoshida’s orders; however, it did fail to include the manager’s statement that his orders had not been properly relayed—an omission that could lead readers to draw the wrong conclusion.)

The fact that two pro-Abe newspapers had suddenly and in quick succession obtained copies of the Yoshida transcript led to widespread suspicions, never proven, that the Prime Minister’s Office leaked the documents to use against the Asahi. True or not, the newspapers seemed willing to serve the purposes of the administration, perhaps to improve their access to information, or to avoid suffering a similar fate as the Asahi.

The other papers also saw the Asahi’s woes as a chance to steal readers. The Yomiuri stuffed glossy brochures in the mailboxes of Asahi subscribers, blasting it for tarnishing Japan’s honor, while praising the Yomiuri’s coverage of the comfort women. This attempt to poach readers ultimately backfired as both newspapers lost circulation.

Rather than stand together to resist government pressure, they allowed themselves to be used as instruments of political pressure,” said Jiro Yamaguchi, a political scientist at Tokyo’s Hosei University.

Despite peer pressure, Asahi journalists say the newspaper initially intended to defend its Fukushima scoop, going so far as to draw up a lengthy rebuttal that was to have run on page one in early September. As late as Sept. 1, Seiichi  Ichikawa, the head of the Investigative Section at the time, told his reporters that the newspaper was ready to fight back. “The government is coming after the Special Investigative Section,” Ichikawa said in a pep talk to his team, according to Watanabe and others who were present. “The Asahi will not give in.”

The Asahi’s decision to punish its own journalists will discourage others from taking the same risks inherent in investigative reporting.

The rebuttal was never published. Instead, President Kimura surprised many of his own reporters with a sudden about face, announcing at a press conference on Sept. 11 that he was retracting the Fukushima-Yoshida article. Reporters say the newspaper’s resolve to defend the piece crumbled when journalists within the newspaper began an internal revolt against the article and the section that produced it.

This was compounded by a sense of panic that gripped the newspaper, as declines in readership and advertising accelerated markedly after the scandals. Fearing for the Asahi’s survival, many reporters chose to sacrifice investigative journalism as a means to mollify detractors, say media scholars and some Asahi journalists, including Yorimitsu.

The Asahi’s official line is that the story was too flawed to defend. The paper’s new president, Masataka Watanabe, continues to talk about the importance of investigative journalism, and some current and former Asahi journalists say investigative reporting will make a comeback.

However, scholars and former section reporters say the setback was too severe. They say the Asahi’s decision to punish its own journalists will discourage others from taking the same risks inherent in investigative reporting. Worse, they said the Asahi seemed to lapse back into the old, access-driven ways of Japan’s mainstream journalism. “The Asahi retreated from its experiment in risky, high-quality journalism, back into the safety of the press clubs,” said Tatsuro Hanada, a professor of journalism at Waseda University in Tokyo. Hanada was so dismayed by the Asahi’s retreat that he established Japan’s first university-based center for investigative journalism at Waseda this year. “It makes me think that the days of Japan’s huge national newspapers may be numbered.”

October 30, 2016 Posted by | Fukushima 2016 | , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Silencing of Japan’s Free Press

Under the heavy hand of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Japan’s media is being forced to toe the government line. Or else.




TOKYO — As the leaders of the G-7 liberal democracies convened in the Japanese shrine town of Ise-Shima this week, host Prime Minister Shinzo Abe used the event to showcase his nation as a regional beacon of democratic values and a counterweight to authoritarian China. However, recent events have raised doubts about his commitment to at least one of those values — freedom of the press.

There have been alarming signs of deteriorating media freedoms in Japan. In March, three of the country’s most outspoken television anchors were removed almost simultaneously by three different networks. While the networks were acting on their own, the dismissals were widely seen as orchestrated by the Abe government: The three were some of the last high-profile media critics of its agenda, which includes restarting Japan’s nuclear power industry and rolling back its postwar pacifism. The sacked anchors joined a growing list of critical media voices that have been muted since Abe took office in December 2012. And their ouster came just weeks after the country’s communications minister, Sanae Takaichi, declared in Japan’s parliament, the Diet, that the government had the legal power to shut down TV broadcasters that it deemed to be politically biased. That announcement capped a difficult year-and-a-half for independent media that saw the largest liberal newspaper, the Asahi Shimbun, subdued and other critical commentators removed from the airwaves.

The taming of Japan’s media watchdogs has attracted growing attention from overseas. On April 19, David Kaye, the U.N. special rapporteur on freedom of expression, wrapped up a weeklong fact-finding mission to Japan by expressing “deep and genuine concern” about declining media independence in Asia’s richest democracy. The following day, the Paris-based media advocacy group Reporters Without Borders lowered Japan’s place in its annual ranking of world press freedom to 72nd out of 180 nations, between Tanzania and Lesotho — down from 61st the previous year. “The Abe administration’s threats to media independence, the turnover in media personnel in recent months and the increase in self-censorship within leading media outlets are endangering the underpinnings of democracy in Japan,” the group said.

According to one Japanese news source, the Abe government’s efforts to suppress critics may have taken a more ominous turn. In its June edition, Facta, a monthly business magazine noted for its scoops, reported that the administration had used Japan’s spy agency, the Cabinet Intelligence and Research Office, to keep tabs on a Japanese lawyer who helped Kaye during his visit. (On her blog, the lawyer, Kazuko Ito, proclaimed she would never yield even if the government monitored her.) The allegations of surveillance conjured the same heavy-handed tactics that Reporters Without Borders and other international media watchdogs have warned might follow Japan’s passage in late 2013 of a new state secrecy law. They say the vagueness of the law, and the draconian prison terms of up to 10 years for revealing secrets, will put a damper on journalists, as well as the whistleblowers within government who may try to help them.

Japan’s mainstream media have never been noted for hard-hitting, independent coverage, instead emphasizing cozy relations with power and a brand of access journalism that can seem extreme even by the standards of the Washington press corps. The Japanese press’s symbiotic relationship with the government is institutionalized in the so-called press clubs, monopolistic arrangements that give reporters from the big national newspapers and broadcasters privileged access to officials, whose perspectives they end up sharing.

But press watchers now warn that Japan is losing even that limited press independence. Consider the case of the Asahi Shimbun, the world’s second-largest newspaper with a daily circulation of 6.8 million. The Asahi, the intellectual flagship of Japan’s political left, had been endeavoring to beef up its investigative coverage following the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, when it and other Japanese mainstream media lost public trust for dutifully repeating the official line that all were safe — even as reactor buildings exploded. What it lacked in investigative prowess, the liberal Asahi had tried to make up for in editorial spunk, opposing the revisionist right’s efforts to whitewash sordid aspects of Japan’s World War II-era history like the “comfort women” forced to work in military brothels.

But in August 2014, the Asahi pulled back from both its comfort women coverage and its investigations into Fukushima following harsh right-wing attacks, led by Abe himself, on missteps in some of its articles. On Oct. 3, 2014, Abe attacked the Asahi for damaging Japan’s reputation after the newspaper belatedly admitted that more than a dozen stories published a quarter-century ago about comfort women had been based on the sourcing of a discredited Japanese army veteran. “It is a fact that its misreporting has caused numerous people to feel hurt, sorrow, suffering, and outrage,” Abe told the lower house budget committee. “It has caused great damage to Japan’s image.”

Japanese government officials and other journalists have pushed back against the criticism of Japan’s press freedoms, calling the pessimistic assessments unfairly harsh. In an April 27 article on Yahoo Japan, journalist Shoko Egawa said “it didn’t make sense” for Reporters Without Borders to rank Japan below places like Hong Kong and South Korea, where there are much more real pressures on journalists. “While it is okay to take as a reference the evaluation of a foreign NGO, there is no need to get all worked up about the low ranking,” she wrote.

There are also few in Japan who believe Takaichi would ever actually try to close down broadcasters. Takaichi raised alarms on Feb. 8, when she told the Diet that the 1950 Broadcast Law, which regulates the nation’s airwaves, allowed the government to shut down broadcasters that fail to remain “politically neutral” by highlighting “only one aspect of a polarizing political issue.” However, when questioned by legislators a day later, she seemed to back down a bit. “I don’t think I would resort to such measures myself,” she said, “but there is no guarantee that future [communications] ministers won’t.”

Japanese and foreign media observers agree that the pressures visibly placed on journalists in Japan can seem quite tepid by international standards. After all, there have been no arrests of journalists or forced closures of media outlets. Nor has the new secrecy law been used to pursue journalists, as the George W. Bush and Obama administrations have done by subpoenaing investigative reporter James Risen of the New York Times in an attempt to force him to reveal his sources of classified information.

What has been worrying, however, is the willingness of major Japanese media to silence themselves in response to a level of behind-the-scenes chiding by Abe administration officials that most U.S. journalists would probably just laugh off. A dramatic example of this was exposed in March 2015, when one of Japan’s biggest networks, TV Asahi, removed Shigeaki Koga, an ex-Trade Ministry official turned sharp-tongued TV commentator, from its Hodo Station evening news program.

Koga drew the administration’s ire when he protested its ineffective handling of a hostage crisis in Syria on air by holding up a placard in January 2015 that read “I’m not Abe.” Before the Abe era, such antics would not have raised eyebrows on Hodo Station, which was known for its feisty commentary. However, the government’s top media handler, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, told reporters at a background briefing how unhappy he was with the “completely mistaken” comments of an unnamed commentator at an unspecified network, according to an internal memo of the conversation recorded by a TV Asahi reporter who was present.

That internal memo was passed back to network executives. Koga says this was enough to convince TV Asahi to remove both himself and a highly regarded producer on the show, Fumie Matsubara. Their departure was followed a year later by TV Asahi’s decision in March to remove the host of Hodo Station, Ichiro Furutachi, who was one of the three anchors ousted this spring.

Other journalists relay similar stories, saying that TV executives quickly take the hint to avoid an actual confrontation with the administration. “It’s not that the media have cowered in the face of some obvious pressure, but this all takes place out of sight, until you suddenly notice that they have retreated,” Shuntaro Torigoe, a veteran TV newscaster, said at a March 2016 press conference at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan, where he and four other top TV journalists warned of growing efforts to intimidate the press. “The administration’s will is passed along to the media executives, becoming part of the atmosphere inside the newsroom that leads to self-censorship and restrained coverage.”

According to Torigoe, the result has been a form of self-censorship that Japanese journalists call sontaku, a term with no exact English translation but that refers to a Japanese social strategy of trying to please others, usually superiors, by preemptively acting in accordance with their perceived whims. Journalists say that while conformity has always been prevalent within Japan’s homogeneous society, the feeling has grown more intense recently as anxieties about the rise of neighboring China have increased the pressure to toe the line.

This conformity has been enforced by the verbal attacks and intimidation from the so-called Net Right, a loose-knit community of shrilly nationalistic netizens whom some members of the Abe government have openly embraced. “Recently, I feel a growing pressure for conformity,” Hiroko Kuniya, another of the three TV anchors ousted in late March, wrote in the May edition of the magazine Sekai, a highly regarded liberal opinion magazine. “This is a pressure that says you must conform to the majority without resisting, that such conformity is normal and expected. It seems even the media have become a party in exerting this pressure.”

Besides the Sekai article, Kuniya has said nothing else about her removal after 23 years at the helm of Close-Up Gendai, the prime-time showcase for investigative journalism on national broadcaster NHK. (She has also declined interview requests.) However, other NHK reporters say they have come under blatant pressure to tamp down criticism of the administration from the broadcaster’s president, Katsuto Momii, a conservative businessman whom Abe installed at the helm in December 2013. Momii has made no secret of his desire for NHK to toe the government line. After April’s deadly earthquake in the southern city of Kumamoto, when there were concerns about damage at a nearby nuclear plant, Momii told his journalists that their coverage must be “based on official government announcements,” not independent reporting.

At private broadcasters, where the government cannot just appoint executives, the administration has found other means of pressure, say journalists and media scholars. They say it has done this by skillfully exploiting structural weaknesses in the media. One of the biggest weaknesses is the extreme emphasis on access to inside information via the press clubs. This results in an intense competition for scoops, in which news agencies vie to be the first to report on the future intentions of government officials or agencies. Reporters’ careers can be made or broken based on their ability to curry enough favor with officials to be tipped off ahead of rival journalists.

Toshio Hara, a former reporter with the Japanese wire service Kyodo News who now writes on media issues, says the Abe administration has manipulated this exaggerated version of access journalism by limiting the prime minister’s press conferences and group interactions with the press gaggle in favor of exclusive interviews. These are bestowed upon only cooperative reporters, who are also favored with advanced leaks about future actions by the administration. News organizations deemed critical are excluded and cut off from the flow of scoops given to other journalists. This preferential access can also take the form of private dinners with the prime minister himself: The Tokyo Shimbun newspaper reported that Abe dined with top political journalists and media executives more than 40 times during his first two years in office alone.

Hara says the administration has made an unprecedented use of access to reward friendly journalists and punish critics. He notes that this has been part of an aggressive push to control media messages — a lesson of Abe’s first stint as prime minister in 2007, when he resigned after only 12 months following intense criticism from the press regarding scandals in his administration. “The power relationship between the prime minister’s office press corps and the prime minister has been completely changed,” Hara wrote in the 2015 book How Ready Is Journalism for the Abe Government? “With a few exceptions, the media have become supplicants.”

Selective granting of access has also allowed the administration to pursue a divide-and-conquer strategy, in which media organizations try to stay in Abe’s good graces by turning on each other. This is what happened to the Asahi, which lost the will to fight after finding that every other major media outlet had ganged up against it, say journalists in the newspaper. “We found ourselves standing all alone,” said Ryuichi Kitano, a senior Asahi reporter. “The administration didn’t even have to criticize us because the media did it for them.”

Shigetada Kishii, another of the three anchors removed this year, says media infighting prevented them from presenting a united front against the threat by Takaichi. The outspokenly liberal Kishii left the TBS network’s News 23, a highly regarded nightly news program, after crossing the Abe government by criticizing the 2015 passage of new laws to expand the role of Japan’s military. “There is something structural in the Japanese media, when it comes to why they couldn’t object as a group” to Takaichi’s comments, said Kishii, who also spoke at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club press conference in March. “Rivalry between newspapers and TV stations prevents them from even thinking about coordinating.”

Lack of solidarity among news companies was also one of the factors cited by Kaye, the U.N. special rapporteur, to explain the Japanese media’s apparent inability to resist political pressure. He linked this to a broader lack of shared professional identity among Japanese journalists, who spend entire careers at the same newspaper or broadcaster, unlike their more peripatetic Western counterparts.

This made them more loyal to company than profession, preventing them from taking a united stand, or forming some sort of effective union or lobby group to defend their interests. Kaye also faulted Tokyo for failing to create a political environment that tolerates the expression of diverse opinions, including dissenting ones. This was all too apparent in his own visit to Japan, which ran into problems created by an administration that appears overly thin-skinned to criticism regardless of its high approval ratings.

Originally scheduled for December, Kaye’s trip to Japan was abruptly canceled just weeks before when Tokyo said it was “unable to arrange meetings.” Even after he managed to make the visit in April, Kaye received a cold shoulder from the Abe government. Despite repeated requests, Takaichi refused to meet him, as did other top officials and media executives — including NHK’s Momii. The highest-ranking member of the administration who agreed to talk with him was a vice minister of communications, who gave him just 15 minutes. Kaye said the vice minister just repeated what Takaichi had said — without elaborating or even trying to explain her comments.

Political experts say that such undiplomatic behavior only further damages Japan’s credibility as a purveyor of democratic values. “Japan’s slide down the global rankings for press freedom and its skewering by the U.N. rapporteur on his recent visit are a black eye for Abe and the nation,” said Jeff Kingston, the director of Asian studies at Temple University in Tokyo. “They undermine Japan’s democratic identity and its constitutional freedoms.” Kingston and others say that Japan needs a vigorous democracy, including robust media freedoms, to compete for influence with a larger and richer China. But with the press either suppressed or in submission, one wonders whether that important warning is even reaching Abe — or likely to appear on the nightly news anytime soon.

May 28, 2016 Posted by | Japan | | Leave a comment

NHK president rapped over remarks on nuclear power reporting


NHK President Katsuto Momii speaks at a House of Councillors budget committee meeting in March 2016.

NHK President Katsuto Momii has come under fire from journalism experts and from within his organization over his recent remarks on how the public broadcaster should report on nuclear power after the Kumamoto earthquakes, in which he was quoted as saying that reports “should be based on official announcements so as not to unnecessarily stir up residents’ anxiety.”

Momii reportedly made the controversial remarks during an April 20 meeting of the public broadcaster’s disaster policy headquarters following the powerful earthquakes in Kumamoto Prefecture.

Asked about the authenticity of his comment during a House of Representatives Internal Affairs and Communications Committee session on April 26, Momii said what he meant by “official announcements” was “basically about figures,” explaining that NHK would report figures measured by radiation monitoring devices set around nuclear plants as well as views presented by the Nuclear Regulation Authority. He added, “It seems a little strange to spread (information that would trigger) concern and anxiety among locals without grounds in terms of avoiding unnecessary confusion.”

In response to Momii’s comment, former Kyodo News reporter and Doshiha University journalism professor Jun Oguro pointed out that official announcements failed to provide information necessary for evacuation to local residents at the time of the Fukushima nuclear disaster following the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake.

“It is odd to conceal information just because some believe that it could cause panic. Broadcasters should offer various types of information, making clear the sources of their information,” Oguro argued, adding, “Viewers who are on the receiving end of information will sort out what they need. If broadcasters concealed information they had, their journalistic responsibility would be called into question.” He further criticized the NHK president, saying, “His attitude is almost as if he doesn’t trust NHK reporters or viewers.”

In response to the president’s controversial remarks, Masatoshi Nakamura, chairman of NHK’s largest union, the Japan Broadcasting Labor Union, released a comment on the organization’s website on April 25, saying, “As a public broadcaster, its reporting is based on facts uncovered through interviews and research.” He went on to say, “‘The confirmation of ‘facts’ does not come upon announcements or acknowledgment by administrative bodies. The ‘facts’ are unveiled through NHK’s independent research efforts.”

A middle-ranking NHK employee working on the ground told the Mainichi Shimbun, “We have been told by our seniors that those in power do not reveal things that are inconvenient to them. We should deliver objective facts learned from public entities, scientists, private organizations and other sources that we believe are necessary.” The employee added, “It is extremely dangerous to put restrictions on sources at one’s own discretion and depend solely on information provided by the authorities. The NHK president should think about the role of news reporting.”

A NHK producer appeared appalled at Momii’s remarks, saying, “He really doesn’t get what a news organization is.” At the same time, the producer said, “This (kind of situation) is to be expected as long as the system allows NHK’s governors, who are appointed by the prime minister, to pick its president. Unless changes are made to the Broadcast Act (that sets regulations regarding operation of NHK), there will be no fundamental improvement.” The producer stressed the importance of constructive criticism from outside NHK since it is difficult for its employees who are the subject of regulation under the Broadcast Act to voice criticism about the organization.

May 4, 2016 Posted by | Japan | , | Leave a comment

Japan’s meek media kowtows to the government


A force to be reckoned with: Two reactors at Kansai Electric Power Co.’s Takahama nuclear power station have been cleared to operate, despite being beyond their 40-year shelf life. The ‘nuclear village’ is alive and kicking despite massive demonstrations and opposition to nuclear power, including from the media, since the meltdowns at Fukushima No. 1 power plant in March 2011.

Last week I compared the Catholic Church in Boston and Japan’s “nuclear village” of atomic-power advocates — two powerful institutions that stifled embarrassing revelations for some time. The Oscar-winning film “Spotlight” depicts the comeuppance of the church hierarchy after investigative reporters from The Boston Globe broke the story about pedophile priests in 2002, including how the church chose to reassign them to other unsuspecting dioceses where they continued to prey on children.

Unlike the pedophiles and their enablers, the nuclear industry has avoided accountability over its culture of wishing risk away and corner-cutting that put public safety at risk. The nuclear village has also overcome massive demonstrations and opposition to nuclear power and revved up a reactor near quake-stricken Kumamoto despite having a dubious evacuation plan and its proximity to active volcanoes. And now two “antique” reactors in Takahama, Fukui Prefecture, have been cleared to operate beyond their 40-year shelf life. The Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant was given an identical clearance just a fortnight before the three meltdowns in 2011. On April 24, Gerald Curtis, professor emeritus at Columbia University, appeared on TBS and questioned the wisdom of operating nuclear reactors in such an earthquake-prone nation. Lessons ignored?

U.N. Special Rapporteur David Kaye — who recently put a spotlight on the Abe administration’s media-muzzling ways — cited a star journalist in the Asahi Shimbun’s award-winning investigative team working on the Fukushima debacle who was punished for his reporting with a salary cut and reassignment to a clerical job. Japan’s nuclear village took down the Asahi’s investigative team, clipping the wings of the media organization that did most to expose the mismanagement of risk and regulatory capture that lay at the heart of Japan’s Chernobyl. For many journalists it remains hard to understand why the Asahi rolled over and conceded without a fight. For others, it is an object lesson of what happens to those who speak truth to power.

According to Curtis, the spineless local media has much to answer for: “The big difference is that the U.S. media stands up to power, as the ‘Spotlight’ movie documents, and the Japanese media all too often kowtows to it.”

Curtis believes the self-censorship is a result of “the pressure from people in senior management and middle-aged reporters who want to be considered for promotion … the salaryman mentality keeps everyone in line.”

He adds, “There are many talented and courageous journalists in Japan, but the media’s craven abdication of its responsibility to defend them and to protect freedom of speech is what needs to be put in the spotlight.”

In March 2011, shortly after the disaster, the Asahi established an investigative team of more than 20 reporters to focus on various aspects of the Fukushima accident. On the strength of the investigative team’s reporting about the nuclear disaster, the Asahi garnered Japan’s equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize in 2012 and 2013. This sparked jealously with rivals and Asahi insiders also resented the fact that an outsider, Yorimitsu Takaaki, had been recruited to lead the team. Takaaki had been hired away from his position at the Kochi Shimbun to be editor in charge of the special investigation team. To inspire his team he put up a sign in the office: “Datsu pochi sengen,” or “Declaration against pooches.” Media lapdogs were not amused.

Yorimitsu encouraged his reporters to spurn the access journalism of cozy “press clubs” where journalists are spoon-fed information by companies and government officials in exchange for pulling their punches — the woeful norm in the nation’s mainstream media. Instead they were exhorted to find important Fukushima disaster stories others weren’t telling as a way to regain the public’s trust and make up for the media’s meek reporting in the first two months after the meltdowns, when it failed to challenge cover-up efforts.

The Asahi reported on May 20, 2014 that during the 2011 disaster some 650 workers decamped to the Fukushima No. 2 plant — 10 kilometers away from the stricken Fukushima No. 1 plant — leaving a skeleton crew to cope with three meltdowns. This scoop was based on a leaked copy of plant manager Masao Yoshida’s testimony, which had been kept from the public. The Asahi reported that workers ignored the orders of Yoshida — an exaggeration, since he said that he did not actually authorize this relocation — but suggested that his instructions were vague and probably garbled as they got passed along the chain of command. The Asahi made it seem like a chaotic mutiny rather than an improvised plan that many workers had reason to believe was authorized, even if it wasn’t.

According to an investigative journalist who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of ongoing work, it is this imprecision that made it difficult for other liberal media outlets to defend the Asahi when the conservative media pounced in August 2014. That month, the Yoshida testimony was leaked to the Sankei Shimbun and Yomiuri Shimbun, possibly by the prime minister’s office, in order to further discredit the Asahi as it was reeling from an orchestrated campaign of vilification by these same rivals over the “comfort women” issue.

The revelation about the exodus of workers was big news because it underscored the risks of effectively managing a nuclear accident. In 2012 an official inquiry also revealed that Yoshida acknowledged that he did not properly operate emergency equipment. Human error in a cascading disaster is understandable if not inevitable, but it does give pause in considering nuclear safety.

The Asahi article challenged the heroic narrative of Yoshida and the “Fukushima 50″ saving the plant. The narrative “served the nuclear industry’s purposes,” argues Martin Fackler, former Tokyo bureau chief for The New York Times, “by giving the public the reassuring image of the plant manager firmly in control during the crisis, and plant workers as selflessly working for the greater good. The Asahi article seemed to punch a hole in both of those claims by reporting that Yoshida had actually lost control of most of his plant’s workers, who the article implied had abandoned the plant for fear of their lives.”

The Sankei and Yomiuri slammed the Asahi for its sensationalized version of the exodus, but, Fackler says, “rather than using their copies of the Yoshida transcript to hold Tepco or nuclear regulators accountable for their nation’s biggest postwar trauma, the two had instead focused their ire exclusively on Japan’s leading left-wing newspaper and antagonist of the prime minister.” Cui bono?

Tatsuro Hanada, a professor at Waseda University’s Institute for Journalism, asserts that Japan’s political elites were prioritizing damage control — arising from the exposure of the nuclear village’s usually hidden flows of money and patronage — over recovery of the disaster-struck communities. Taking down the Asahi was part of that agenda.

“These efforts to demolish the Fukushima article had clear benefits to Japan’s nuclear establishment,” says Fackler, “by casting doubt on the Asahi’s critical coverage just as the Abe administration was moving to restart reactors idled since the Fukushima catastrophe.”

Under fire, on Sept. 11, 2014 — a month after the Asahi admitted that 13 articles published on “comfort women” in the 1980s and ’90s had relied on one veteran’s discredited testimony (just as its conservative rivals had) — the Asahi capitulated ignominiously, retracting the exodus story and spiking a robust rebuttal by the investigative team. Instead of a simple correction about the exodus, the team was downsized, key journalists transferred to nonpolitical desk jobs and management shifted the spotlight away from Fukushima — futile gestures of appeasement and damage control. The Asahi’s response heralded similar capitulations across the industry and the subsequent purge of prominent newscasters critical of Abe.

Not since U.S. President Richard Nixon has there been a democratic leader as paranoid, hypersensitive and menacing toward the media. Very uncool, Mr. Abe.

April 30, 2016 Posted by | Japan | , | Leave a comment

NHK chief urges staff to exclude experts’ views on quake coverage


Japan Broadcasting Corp. President Katsuto Momii during a Lower House committee session in March

The Japan Broadcasting Corp. (NHK) president not only instructed subordinates to toe the government line in covering the Kyushu earthquake disaster, but he also urged them to avoid airing the views of outside experts, sources said.

The reporting should be based on authorities’ official announcements,” the sources quoted Katsuto Momii as saying during a meeting at the public broadcaster on April 20. “If various assessments by experts were broadcast, it would only end up unnecessarily raising concerns among the public.”

Minutes of the meeting obtained by The Asahi Shimbun earlier showed Momii’s instructions to rely on official government announcements in reporting the series of earthquakes in Kumamoto Prefecture that started on April 14 and the possible impact on nuclear power plants in the region.

But the minutes did not include any passages on Momii’s call to refrain from broadcasting experts’ opinions about the implications on nuclear power plants.

Sources at NHK said Momii indeed said those words at the meeting.

The part may have been removed (from the record) over concerns that it could cause trouble if left intact,” an NHK source said.

An official with NHK’s Public Relations Department declined to comment on details of the internal meeting, which was attended by about 100 senior officials.

Momii has faced constant criticism since he assumed the NHK presidency in January 2014. At his first news conference as NHK chief, he indicated that the public broadcaster would be a mouthpiece for the government.

On April 26, Momii reiterated his position about toeing the official line for coverage on the earthquake disaster and nuclear facilities in response to a question from Soichiro Okuno, a member of the main opposition Democratic Party.

Based on facts, we will report on (radiation) figures registered at monitoring posts without adding various comments,” Momii said at a session of the Lower House Committee of Internal Affairs and Communications.

Momii said official announcements would come from the Meteorological Agency, the Nuclear Regulation Authority and Kyushu Electric Power Co.

Kyushu Electric operates the Sendai nuclear power plant in Satsuma-Sendai, Kagoshima Prefecture, which is immediately south of Kumamoto Prefecture. The Sendai plant’s two reactors are the only ones currently operating in Japan, and the plant’s relative proximity to the series of temblors has prompted calls to shut down the reactors until the shaking stops.

If the NRA believes that the nuclear plant is safe or can remain in operation, we will just report it like that,” Momii said.

The NHK president also said broadcasting such official announcements is not at all like the release of reports that were convenient to wartime authorities when Japan was losing World War II.

I do not mean official announcements by the headquarters of the imperial military during World War II,” Momii said.

Some NHK reporters clearly expressed their frustration with Momii’s editorial stance.

I feel that he did it again, which I find saddening,” said a midlevel reporter in NHK’s news department. “But we, who are gathering news on the front lines, want to stick with our mission to report information for the viewers.”

Academics specializing in news media were also upset by Momii’s words.

NHK has the ability to report on what is unfolding at the scene before the government makes an announcement,” said Yoshihiro Oto, professor of media theory at Sophia University.

Oto mentioned the time when Fukushima Central Television Co., a local broadcaster, showed footage of hydrogen explosions at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant in March 2011, before the government acknowledged that the explosions had occurred at the plant.

If a similar thing occurs in the future, Momii’s instructions would mean that NHK would not be allowed to broadcast the footage until the government makes an official announcement,” Oto said. “That would be tantamount to resigning NHK’s editorial rights and suicidal as a news organization.”

Yasuhiko Oishi, professor of media ethics at Aoyama Gakuin University, said the president of the public broadcaster does not have a proper understanding of the role of journalism.

He completely lacks a perspective to critically evaluate what authorities say,” Oishi said. “If he believes that the news media’s role is just reporting the official line, then that is equivalent to being the government’s mouthpiece.”

April 30, 2016 Posted by | Japan | | Leave a comment