In Japanese media, fair is a four-letter word

Abe administration threatens press freedom with favoritism.

Guest column by Hajime Nambu, Japan Federation of Commercial Broadcasting Workers Unions.

The latest ranking of Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index was disastrous for the Japanese media industry. The country was ranked No. 72 out of 180 countries and territories in 2016, continuing the slide from No. 61 in 2015, No. 59 in 2014 and No. 11 in 2010.

But those of us in Japanese media are not surprised at all. The existence of freedom of expression in Japan, once taken for granted, is now a grave concern.

It is clear to us that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is the predominant force behind this drop. Abe, who is also the president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, is known for his ultraconservative politics. Ever since his first senatorial term in 1993, he has aimed to modify the current Constitution, which was heavily influenced by the U.S., to allow Japan to participate in military operations overseas. To achieve this goal, he must heavily control the media because he knows that the Japanese people don’t support it.

Abe uses, for example, a closed-circle strategy: He appears often in the media, but, whenever possible, heavily favors the outlets sympathetic to his cause and excludes those who don’t share his values. He also cherry-picks the media and grants his favorite outlets exclusivity to news from his cabinet and party members. Needless to say, lacking access to such stories is a serious problem for any reporter. So, the more Abe cherry-picks the media, the fewer negative stories there are, as no reporter can afford to be excluded.

Another example is pressuring the media in the name of “fairness.”  In February, Internal Affairs and Communications Minister Sanae Takaichi said in a Diet session, “The government can order broadcasters to suspend operations if they continue to air TV programming that is deemed politically biased.” Many journalists and legal specialists criticized the minister’s comment as a threat to press freedom and creating a chilling effect on the media. But this was not the first such comment. During the parliamentary election two years ago, the ruling party handed out a document stating that “reporting shall be done fairly.”

Local media knows the phrases “unbiased” and “fairly” are code for “refrain from stories that are inconvenient to the cabinet or the ruling party.” If a TV report doesn’t portray them in a good light, the ruling party ensures that the media outlet’s leaders know of its disapproval. They say things like, “the story reported today is doubtful from a fairness perspective.” The leaders try to produce an uncritical atmosphere to the power, rather than giving direct suggestions to refrain from negative reports.  Journalists have a decision to make: embrace this atmosphere and tone down the story, or lose access to the Prime Minister’s Office and the Cabinet. As a result of this assault on the media, journalists are hesitant to report delicate and controversial stories. And when they do write them, they keep them relatively low-profile.

The Japanese constitution guarantees “freedom of expression.”  At least it does now, in 2016. What’s worse, “un-freedom of expression” in Japan exists because the media is self-censoring. Instead of fighting the clearly visible pressure, media execute self-censorship and have simply stopped exercising their “freedom of expression.”

The article was originally published on the website of the N3CON SEOUL 2016, n3con.com. 

About the author

Lee Tae-hoon

Lee Tae-hoon

Lee Tae-hoon is publisher at The Korea Observer. He previously worked for the Korea Times and Arirang TV. You can reach him at lee@koreaobserver.com.

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