Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW)/日本からの意見

Government Versus Mass Media – The Japanese Version
KITAMURA Fumio / Professor at Shukutoku University

May 28, 2002
Perhaps unbeknownst to foreign observers, Japanese news organizations are currently undergoing a critical change.

An important responsibility entrusted to mass media is its function as watchdog over government power. To prevent those in authority from monopolizing power and to safeguard citizens’ rights, the process involved in the exercise of power must be made transparent. Such transparency is synonymous with ensuring the citizen's right to know, and the media is expected to exercise this right as a proxy. The mass media must therefore consistently maintain tension in its confrontational relationship with government. Should news organizations become lax in its rigorous surveillance and criticism of the powers that be, they risk losing the trust of the public.

In the past, Japanese journalism has found itself the subject of much criticism from both inside and outside the country. The weakness of its surveillance functions against government power has been a major reason. In particular, writings by so-called ‘Revisionists,’ who stated their cause against Japan in the 1980s through the early ‘90s, had without exception accurately pointed out the inadequacy of the Japanese media as a watchdog. Karel van Wolferen’s book, “The Enigma of Japanese Power,” which gave rise to extensive debate, included Japanese news organizations in the category of “Servants of the System,” and in its scathing criticism went as far as to describe Japanese newspapers as “the house-broken press.”

However, Japanese news organizations have now united in strengthening their confrontational stand against government. The point of contention – the proposed Human Rights Protection Law and the Personal Information Protection Law submitted before parliament by the government party. On April 24, the Japan Newspaper Publishers and Editors Association (NSK) – whose membership consists of 112 newspaper publishers, 4 news agencies and 35 television broadcasters – issued an emergency statement against the two bills in the name of its Board of Directors, an organ comprising the presidents of each member media. The statement rejected both bills as “inviting government intervention in the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of expression,” and declared its “determined opposition.” It was the first time that the NSK’s highest decision-making body issued a statement in opposition of specific government policy. How did this extraordinary situation come to pass?

As suggested by their names, the two bills uphold protection of the human rights of individual citizens and stronger protection of personal information as basic principles. It goes without saying that eliminating unjustified interference in private lives and protecting the freedom and honor of citizens are the basic legal tenets of a democratic society. On the other hand, mass media is entrusted with the responsibility of exposing corruption for the benefit of society and the public’s right to know. And its role of making transparent the inner workings of power carries with it the heaviest responsibility. Revealing public and private information of those in power is an unavoidable aspect of that responsibility. Thus the protection of personal rights and the mass media’s mission - while being essential aspects of a democratic society - frequently assume a conflicting nature. The ideal state of affairs for resolving this contradiction requires the mass media to exercise utmost care for respecting human rights and personal information in pursuing its uncompromising surveillance of those in power.

Japan’s news organizations are vehemently opposed to the proposed bills based on the recognition that they contain elements that will infringe upon this ideal state. The bills are composed of overlapping layers of complicated rhetoric and legal terminology that allows for arbitrary interpretation. I shall refrain from a detailed inspection of the individual articles, and focus instead on two points which have been cited by the media as reasons for opposition.

The first point is that the basic principle of protecting personal information advocated by the bill could be used to impose restrictions on news gathering activities by media organizations. A hypothetical case may be the gathering of information related to corruption cases involving politicians and bureaucrats. If the subject of such activity demanded the submission of personal information in accordance with the bill’s principle, it isn’t clear whether news organizations could refuse to do so. The second point is that the authority for supervision, investigation and instruction with regard to implementation rests entirely in the hands of the government. In the case of protecting personal information, a main minister has been designated for each category of business that provides personal information, leading to the creation of an airtight supervisory system controlled by administrative authorities. Likewise, in protecting human rights, a third-party body to be set up by the government will be given extensive investigative authority including compulsory investigation.

Since the NSK Board of Directors declared its “determined opposition as a life and death matter for news organizations,” others involved in journalism and publishing have successively followed suit, including the National Association of Commercial Broadcasters in Japan, the Japan Book Publishers Association and the Japan Magazine Publishers Association, voicing their explicit opposition to the two bills.

I heartily welcome the united campaign waged by the Japanese mass media in support of freedom of expression. As one who has spent many years in the world of journalism, I take pride in the confrontational stand taken by Japanese news organizations against government. At the same time, however, I think that vociferous opposition against the two laws has also thrust a new responsibility on mass media.

The Japanese public has been strongly critical of the mass media not only for its laxity in confronting power, but also for its methods of news gathering and the content of its reporting, which have demonstrated a lack of respect for human rights. Sensational coverage involving unwarranted intrusions into privacy and excessively aggressive reporting that lacks consideration for crime victims and their families are dragging down the public’s trust and sympathy regarding the mass media. Such distrust and dislike of news organizations have undeniably played a supportive role for the government in submitting the two bills.

Government authorities must never be allowed to exercise supervision and restriction over mass media. And mass media in turn has been confronted with the need to establish self-imposed and self-disciplinary rules of action for bolstering public trust.

The writer is a Professor at Shukutoku University and former London Bureau Chief and Senior Editor of the Yomiuri Newspaper.
The English-Speaking Union of Japan

北村 文夫 / 淑徳大学教授

2002年 5月 28日











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English Speaking Union of Japan > Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW) > Government Versus Mass Media – The Japanese Version