EU Criticizes Press Freedom in Japan
John de Boer (University of Tokyo & GLOCOM Platform)
On 3 December, the European Union issued its second demarche in as many months highlighting access problems for foreign journalists in Japan and demanding that restrictions be eased. The first request for greater press freedom in Japan came as part of the "EU Priority Proposals for Regulatory Reform in Japan" issued by the European Commission back on 17 October 2002. According to a press release issued by the Delegation of the European Commission in Japan, both demarche's form part of the EU's "ongoing measure to ensure that non-Japanese journalists are treated in a fair and transparent manner by the Japanese authorities" (EU News 25/2002).
In its Priority Proposals, the European Commission characterized access to information in Japan, particularly to foreign journalists, as highly restrictive. The proposal denounced the kisha club system as an exclusive institution that protects elite interests (p. 18). With the exception of a number of international wire services, which have observer status, membership to press briefings and other media events controlled by the kisha club system (which essentially covers almost all official press conferences both at the local and national level), is denied to journalists from foreign media organizations, not to mention shukan-shis (weekly, monthly, bi-monthly magazines).
The EU believes that by denying foreign correspondents first-hand access to briefings, "the system acts as a de facto competitive hindrance to foreign media organizations … and in effect, works as a restraint on the free trade in information" (p. 19). The report claims that the kisha club system gives the means to government officials and the media hierarchy of "preventing the spread of information they may consider disadvantageous", thereby delaying public access to information of direct relevance to public health and safety (p. 19). The EU also states that the system leads to poor reporting as it "encourages an over-reliance on single source information" (p. 19). As examples where restrictions on foreign journalists have impeded reporting, the EU cited the Lucie Blackman murder case, the recent visit of Prime Minister Koizumi to North Korea and the BSE incident.
In order to rectify the system, the EU has demanded that the kisha club system be abolished and that procedures for the accreditation of foreign journalists to international conferences be simplified. According to EU sources, these demands follow in the wake of "frequent requests to EU member state embassies and the delegation of the European Commission for assistance" (Press Release 25/2002).
This issue was also taken up by Jonathan Watts who writes for the British daily, The Guardian, on 29 November 2002. While agreeing with the fact that restrictions on foreign journalists should be relaxed in Japan, Watts reminded his readers that exclusivity also exists in Europe citing the example of what he called the "No. 10 Lobby in Britain". Nevertheless, his assessment was that accessing information in Japan was far more problematic than in Europe.
In addition to access issues, however, Watts highlighted the problem of press responsibility. He questioned whether the Japanese media was living up to its watchdog role. He cited a ten year old survey conducted by the Japan Newspaper Publishers and Editors Association where 74% of journalists polled blamed the kisha club system for "uniform reporting" and where more than 50% felt that the system made it easy for authorities to manipulate information. His article named the 1999 Tokaimura nuclear accident, Lucie Blackman's case and the BSE incident as examples of this fact.
Watts also went so far as to claim that the system promoted an establishment bias among the media. He indicated that the press was lenient on pro-establishment politicians such as Muneo Suzuki (LDP Diet member) and too harsh on anti-establishment people such as Makiko Tanaka (former Foreign Minister), Koichi Kato (former Secretary General of LDP) and Kiyomi Tsujimoto (former Secretary General of the Social Democratic Party).
While it is true that the kisha club system is unfairly biased to local journalists and lends itself to the manipulation of information, the latest "Worldwide Press Freedom Index", published by the Paris based non-governmental organization Reporters without Borders indicates that Japan has greater press freedom than a number of EU member states. Among 139 countries and territories Japan was ranked 26th in terms of press freedom while Spain was ranked 29th and Italy 40th. It is a well known fact that news diversity is under threat in Italy where Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi owns a dominant private media group and simultaneously controls state-run-media. Japan was also ranked second in all of Asia behind Hong Kong which was listed at number 18. According to the Reporters without Borders website, the results were based on a survey of local and foreign journalists, researchers and legal experts about press freedom (www.rsf.fr). Similar findings have been documented by a US based organization called Freedom House (www.freedomhouse.org).
Although four out of the top five ranked countries in the "Worldwide Press Freedom Index" are European, in relative terms media watchdog organizations do not seem to think that press freedom in Japan is all that bad, rather they indicate that the main obstacle has to do with the kisha club system. The key issue is whether or not the press is fulfilling its public role by "monitoring the centers of power" (to use Robert Fisk's and Amira Haas' definition). As Jonathan Watts and the EU proposals have highlighted, the kisha club system inherently discourages anti-establishment reports, thereby, not only decreasing the quality of information that citizens receive but also compromising information that has direct relevance to public safety and health. Judging from the fact that foreign journalists are barred from full participation in official press conferences and briefings in various ministries, freedom of access is an issue in Japan regardless of where it may stand in relation to the rest of the world on the matter. Japan should respond to EU calls to improve access for foreign journalists and disentangle private interests from public rights, however, at the same time the European Union should put more pressure on its own member states, such as Italy and Spain, to improve their situation as well.
- Delegation of the European Commission, "EU Calls on Japan to Improve Access for Foreign Journalists at International Conferences", EU News 25/2002, 3 December 2002
- European Commission, "EU Priority Proposals for Regulatory Reform in Japan", 17 October 2002