Freedom of the Press in Japan
John de Boer (University of Tokyo)
An interesting and alarmist article appeared in the Wall Street Journal this past week. The article entitled "Japan's Not-So-Free Press", was written by a freelance journalist based in Tokyo named Catherine Makino. The contents of which had to do with the three laws introduced to the Diet that attempt to limit the scope of information gathering and usage by news organizations. The article attempted to send a clear message to the rest of the world, namely that these three bills threaten to deprive all Japanese of their freedom of speech and of the press. It is questionable whether the bills go so far, nevertheless, the uproar over this legislation by Japanese news organizations is being heard overseas and it is creating a stir.
The three bills to which Catherine Makino was referring to were the Human Rights Protection Law, the Planned Personal Information Protection Law and the Basic Law on Social Environment for Young People introduced several weeks ago by the Liberal Democratic Party. Makino claims that these three bills could open the door to considerable government intervention and curb various forms of expression "under the guise of protecting privacy, human rights and youths". For her, the obvious aim of these bills is to protect the government, and not vulnerable citizens, from the media. She reached this conclusion all the more swiftly due to the fact that their introduction followed shortly after the Liberal Democratic Party was rocked by a number of scandals causing considerable instability in the Koizumi administration.
Instead of protecting vulnerable citizens from an intrusive press, the argument put forward by Makino was that the laws served to cloud the distinction between private and public figures. While the Justice Ministry justified the bills as measures that sought to protect people from damage and anguish caused by intrusive journalists seeking interviews, Makino reported that the definition of "intrusive" was extremely narrow and could lead to the prosecution of news reporters who are trying to do their public duty. In addition, Makino took issue over the fact that the very subjects of the information gathered by news agencies could have veto power over its use if the bills were passed.
The ultimate effect of the bills, as introduced by this Wall Street Journal column, was that they would discourage reporting on corrupt politicians and could potentially contribute to the covering up of wrongdoing. For example, under the personal information bill, LDP secretary general, Taku Yamasaki, would have the right to sue the publishers of his story, which revealed his extramarital affair. Eventually, this legislation would make it harder to "nail public officials" stressed Makino.
Catherine Makino does have a point. The bills curiously coincide with recent scandals involving high-ranking LDP officials and do not clearly specify what constitutes human rights abuses and personal information. This leaves them open to political manipulation and makes the fight against impunity all the more difficult. Nevertheless, there are legitimate grounds for some sort of legislation that protects vulnerable citizens from excessive media bombardment. The Japanese press is renown for being especially intrusive in cases where individuals suffer tragedies. In addition, the mainstream media has often engaged in tabloid like coverage behavior without respect for privacy and is seen by some as having overstepped the boundaries entitled to it according to the freedom of information act. As to whether or not these bills will deprive Japanese of their right to freedom of speech is questionable. It no doubt sets limits, which are unfortunately unspecified and suspicious in terms of motivation. Nevertheless, the average Japanese citizen is too educated and too aware to stand by idly as certain scandal ridden parties proceed to try and limit their fundamental freedoms. Any law that deprives this public of its rights will not last, the Japanese people will not return to a system of authoritarian rule. If anything, the public more than ever wants increased transparency and accountability on the part of government officials. This is something that has been lacking in effectiveness for far too long and any attempt to resist this will simply be met by more opposition.
- Catherine Makino, "Japan's Not-So-Free Press", The Wall Street Journal, 15 May 2002