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Press Freedom in Japan: When A Discussion Isn’t A Discussion




On November 30, 2018, The Japan Times published an article about a South Korean court ordering Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. to pay compensation to wartime laborers.


The otherwise non-revolutionary story attracted international scrutiny, however, because it came with an editor’s note announcing two major shifts in editorial policy:

  • It would stop using the term “forced laborers” in favor of “wartime laborers” —  referring to workers who worked in factories in Japan between 1910 and 1945.
  • It would also revise its definition of “comfort women,” explaining that those women were not “forced” to provide sex to the Japanese army during the war effort, but rather were “women who worked in brothels, including women who did so against their will.”

Among other foreign publications, The Guardian (UK) ran an article by Justin McCurry which highlighted the international outcry. It argued that The Japan Times editor’s note suggested bowing to pressure from the Shinzo Abe administration, as the revised definition hewed more closely to the position of the government.


The Japan Times addressed the outcry by issuing a statement on December 6, to “humbly apologize” to its readers and staff for “damaging the relationship of trust.”


Then Comes the Tokyo’s Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan


Using The Japan Times controversy as a starting point, the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan (FCCJ) decided to hold a panel discussion on freedom of the press in general in Japan.


Japan’s ranking in the World Press Freedom Index published in 2018 by Reporters without Borders dropped from 26th to 67th out of 180 countries, creating another controversy. The FCCJ invited Cédric Alviani, East-Asia bureau director of Reporters Without Borders, as a lead panelist.


Other topics on the agenda included the pressure on the media, self-censorships on topics seen as “taboo,” issues concerning female journalists, “specially designated secrets,” and “anti-terrorism” laws.


To address these wider issues, two former NHK journalists were invited as panelists: Jun Hori, currently CEO of 8bitNews, and Yasuo Ohnuki, President of the Free Press Association of Japan. Rounding out the speakers’ panel were Hiroyuki Ida, deputy editor of Shukan Kinyobi, and Pio d’Emilia, East Asia correspondent of Sky TG24.


The discussion barely touched on the issue of The Japan Times editorial policy, as panelists talked at length about the World Press Freedom Index, and aired their feelings of being pressured into self-censorship compared to their counterparts abroad.


High profile cases of journalists allegedly being bashed were cited as examples of the Japanese press being “pressured into silence.” Cases cited included that of Yasuda Junpei, a freelance journalist held hostage in Syria for three years, and Shiori Ito, a freelance journalist who accused the then-bureau chief of one of Japan’s biggest TV networks of rape.


At the end of the day, there was one glaring problem: the panel discussion was not a discussion. It hardly touched upon the more timely topic of The Japan Times announcement, and the event descended into haphazard recollections of the personal experiences of a few.


World Press Freedom Index: ‘It is Our Personal Opinion’


The controversy created by the 2018 Reporters without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index, however, was raised. This was only natural as the guest of honor on the panel was Cédric Alviani, the East-Asian bureau chief of the publication.


As the discussion ploughed on, it became clear that, despite being called an “index,” the study has little to do with scientifically gathered intelligence.


Alviani himself pointed out: “Every year RSF assesses the situation of press freedom all round the world in 180 territories. This is not a scientific study, at all. It is our personal opinion.”


He continued, arguing that the reason for this type of activism was to create a survey which would take into account not only the number of journalists killed or tortured, but also whether the environment was conducive to free journalism.


Alviani highlighted that the aim of the study was to “spur debate.” He also argued that Japan “should fare better,” thereby claiming that his publication’s particularly harsh judgement reflected the expectation that Japan should have impeccable freedom of the press as defined by his organization.


Despite the study’s noble intentions, it invites questions.


For example, Japan is two positions worse than Malta, the country where anti-corruption journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia was killed in a car-bomb in notoriously murky circumstances in October 2017.


Coupled with Alviani’s apparent lack of knowledge regarding the situation of the press in Japan and the murky way in which the index was compiled, it became clear that argument based on the survey was far from convincing. (RELATED ARTICLE: ‘Press Freedom in Contemporary Japan’: A Lazy Look at the State of Japanese Media)


View from Inside NHK: Constrained Self-Expression


Yasuo Ohnuki and Jun Hori, both former NHK employees, gave their take on the Japanese media.


Hori, now head of 8bitNews, cited the treatment of Junpei Yasuda, the freelance journalist who was captured and held in Syria for nearly three years. Hori criticized the fact that press coverage was framed as Yasuda’s capture being his own personal responsibility, as opposed to a story about a fellow Japanese journalist who should be celebrated for his efforts.


As relatable as this viewpoint may be, Hori’s account was colored by his personal dissatisfaction with corporate television work. In particular, although he said there was no pressure per se, he increasingly felt like he couldn’t voice his opinions at work. Instead, he shared his opinions more openly on his personal blogs. He said the level of dissatisfaction eventually led him to quit his position at NHK.


Yet, in an age where we can all post out opinion on the internet, it was hard to understand what NHK was expected to do — or not do — regarding Hori’s position.


Government-Journalist Relations


Yasuo Ohnuki, for his part, talked in more depth about the relationship between journalists and government officials as a cause for concern. He explained how government officials would often sit down with journalists and break down the information when there is a new policy enacted. Ohnuki’s view was that this information then tends to become the skeleton for an article on the subject. He even quoted — with apparent horror — how journalists would boast on national television that they met regularly with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.


However, there were gaping holes in Ohnuki’s argument. First, he never explained what he considered a better way to get the full picture of new government policies being reported. Moreover, the constant assumption was that Western media is better. He conveniently failed to mention whether — or how — government-journalist relations were also a problem elsewhere.


Is Western Media Better Media?


Another notable gap in the discussion was the fact that, although the speakers seemed ready to bash Japanese media, they were hardly critical of the Western media.


American media was hardly mentioned, despite the fact that Donald Trump, a world leader, accuses news outfits, such as CNN, of producing “fake news,” while leaving undisturbed Fox News’ biased reports regarding the Trump administration.


There are known cases of Western media publishing false stories without fact checking. A case in point was The New York Times, which publicly admitted that it did not double-check supposed firsthand accounts regarding the Iraq war. The story created such a scandal that the newspaper had to issue a public apology.


Even in British media, the Daily Telegraph is alleged by liberals to be the public relations news outfit of the government, gaining the nickname “Tory Graph.” When not accused of being a spokesperson for the government, it has been accused of putting advertising interests over those of the readers, as in the case of the coverage of HSBC back in 2015.


These are not the only cases. While many Western media have been quick to criticize the state secrets laws in Japan approved in 2013 under the Abe administration, those same critics fail to note that the United Kingdom implemented what has been nicknamed the “snoopers charter.” Although it has been partially revised since its introduction in 2016, the extended state surveillance under the act went largely unnoticed outside of the U.K.


All in all, it seemed clear that many of the speakers were jumping to conclusions that the grass is greener elsewhere, but failed to provide comparison of Japan’s situation to those overseas.


Future Discussion?


To understand the breadth of disparity throughout the discussion, it is sufficient to quote Benjamin Fulford, former Asia-Pacific bureau chief of Forbes Magazine. He took the floor as the first person to comment on the topic of freedom of the press. Seemingly out of the blue, he said: “I have suffered at least five murder attempts in this country…. If you don’t understand that the Yamaguchi Gumi subcontracts murders for these people (the Abe Administration), you have no idea what goes on in this country.”


You will be forgiven for your confusion when hearing allegations of the government being associated with one of the major Yakuza gangs, because many onlookers were visibly bemused.


In a timely fashion, Business Review journalist Anthony Rowley pointed out that no one should be complacent about freedom of the press, whether or not initiatives such as the World Press Index were in fact “crying wolf.”


At the end of the afternoon event, one was left with the feeling that the panel discussion had been framed by outdated examples, misrepresentations, and paranoia, with little time for questions that might have helped to objectively illuminate the issues.


Whatever imperfections Japan may suffer with freedom of the press, if the first issue raised consists of innuendo on alleged government-sponsored death threats in Japan, it is perhaps a sign that the discussion we are having is not a fruitful one.


Author: Arielle Busetto


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  1. MCFrearrangment

    February 13, 2019 at 8:26 am

    Sankei is the only reliable Japanese national news paper that reports facts. 2019 Feb 4, 16 members of the All Japan Construction Transportation Coalition Labor Union Kansai District Raw Concrete Branch (called Kansai Nama Kon) were arrested for attempted extortion, only Sankei reported this incident. This group is comprised of agents of North Korea living in Japan. When Nara Prefecture Police and Osaka Prefecture Police raided this branch, many banners of anti-Japan slogans written in Korean were shown in the office. Official cars of Kansai Nama Kon are known to exhibit anti-Abe administration banners written in Japanese and Korean. Many photos of these cars are shown on several blog sites, e.g. https://www.jijitsu.net/entry/2018/03/20/053000 .

    In 1993, NHK aired a special program on the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident, and reported that no massacre occurred in Tiananmen Square. 22 branches of Japan Communist Party exist in NHK. At least 98 members of NHK (including news caster, announcers, directors, etc.) have been positively identified as communists. TV Asahi (of Asahi Shinbun) and TBS (of Maichini Shinbun) have more members of Japan Communist Party than NHK. China has an anti-Japan propaganda agency called Japan-China Media Exchange Center. NHK keeps 2 correspondents in this anti-Japan propaganda agency. Whenever NHK produces a program on China, these NHK correspondents receive sp called “guidance” from China Communist Party.

  2. Paul Arenson

    January 12, 2019 at 2:12 pm

    Your article alleging Japan bashing fails to clarify that the Sankei newspaper shares the ultra-rightist ideology of historical revisionists like Abe, is part of the Atarashi Rekushu Wo Tsukurukai attempt to remove so-called “masochistic history” from the classroom and bring back pre-war nationalist style patriotism.

    As well, there are indeed grounds for questioning the impartiality of the media with regard to the influence of the LDP and particularly PM Abe. Two successive officials of NHK ( Momii and Hyakuta )indeed tried to censor journalists or tried to manipulate NHK’s news to reflect a pro Abe stance. The influence of Abe’s friends in high places extends to Ito Shiroi’s alleged rapist ( former head of Washington bureau at TBS) and the police official who called off his arrest just as lower level police officers were set to arrest him.

    Your quoting the clown Fulford has nothing to do with the topic as he is not considered a serious figure my most journalists I know. It is a distraction from the allegations made at the news conference and does not lend your argument credibility.

    Finally, many serious critics of Japanese journalism also criticise the governments of the UK and the US for waging immoral wars as well as the corporate western media which tends to avoid critical coverage for similar reasons.

    Your report seems to be little more than cheerleading for the sharp rightward turn Japan is taking and pretending that any criticism is Japan bashing.

    Last, ever since Koizumi first blamed the Iraq hostages there has been a disturbing neoliberal tendency to blame the victims even when the State by supporting US military policies helped to create the conditions for their capture.

    It is the responsibility of any news reporter, whether left or right in outlook, to present all the facts. Just as with the Japan Time’s firing of progressive journalists, which limits the range of facts and opinions readers are able to see, your piece gives the impression that there is no problem with Japan’s media. You are doing a serious disservice to your readers.


    Paul Arenson
    Japan Human Rights Appeal

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