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World Press Freedom Index Places Japan 70th, but Is It Accurate?

RSF cited political pressure and press clubs in its ranking of press freedom in Japan, prompting skepticism and speculation about its ranking criteria.

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Chile's President Gabriel Boric delivers a speech during the opening ceremony of the World Press Freedom Day Conference, in Santiago, Chile May 3, 2024. (©REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado)

On May 3, the international journalist organization Reporters Without Borders (RSF) released its 2024 World Press Freedom Index. Japan dropped two places from 2023 to rank 70th, the lowest among the Group of Seven (G7) nations. 

This has sparked considerable skepticism across social media. Some suggested that few countries allow as much freedom to criticize the government as Japan does. Others have expressed doubt over Japan's rapid decline from 12th in 2010 during the Democratic Party of Japan's administration.

Press Club System to Blame

RSF's index covered 180 countries and regions. Norway topped the list for the eighth consecutive year, with Western countries dominating the top spots. China ranked 172nd, while North Korea placed 177th. 

Regarding Japan, RSF claimed that journalists face obstacles in their watchdog duties due to political pressure and gender inequality. They alleged that the press club system leads to media self-censorship and discrimination against foreign journalists.

In response to the latest rankings, Egyptian-born entertainer Fifi took to her X (formerly Twitter) account on May 4. 

"This is completely false," she wrote. "How many other countries allow the same level of government criticism as Japan? It's incredible how people can report here [Japan] without any backlash and still be allowed to continue operating." She sarcastically added, "Japan would definitely rank first on any index measuring countries' freedom not to report certain stories."

Andrii Nazarenko, a Ukrainian resident of Japan who shares updates about Russia's invasion of Ukraine in Japanese, also addressed the issue. In a May 5 X post, he noted, "Many journalists here believe they can't criticize certain opposition parties or left-wing organizations. They firmly believe that the media's role is to critique democratically elected governments rather than simply report facts."

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The spread of social media has allowed people to share their opinions with a much wider audience. (File photo ©Sankei)

Discrepancy in Ranking Plunge

According to RSF's website, Japan ranked as high as 12th in 2010 but experienced a sharp decline thereafter.

Journalist Toshinao Sasaki pointed out on X on May 7 that "The sudden drop in rankings lacks consistency." 

On X, users voiced their suspicions. "Wasn't press freedom in Japan at its lowest during the Democratic Party's tenure?" wrote one user. Another user commented, "Japan's ranking rising during the Democratic Party's administration seems quite arbitrary."

Freelance announcer Ichiro Furutachi, too, recently commented on press freedom during the Democratic Party era. Furutachi served as the main newscaster for the TV Asahi news program Hodo Station between 2004 and 2016. 

Appearing on the May 5 episode of Yomiuri TV program Sokomadeitteiinkai NP, he shared some insightful remarks. "After the Democratic Party came into power, we would get calls from ministers and politicians," he said. "They would ring up telling us to silence certain newscasters or demanding apologies." 

Interestingly, he revealed that "since the second Abe administration, the calls have completely stopped."

Press Accountability

Blogger Kazue Fujiwara commented on the rankings on X on May 6. "The sudden decline was not due to the press suppression by the Abe administration as some TV programs suggest," she wrote. "It was because the RSF recognized in November 2012 that press clubs were interfering with freelance journalists."

On May 4, Toshio Katsukawa, an Associate Professor at Tokyo University of Marine Science and Technology, discussed the issue on X. "What Japan really lacks is not press freedom but rather press accountability," he opined. "While exercising the freedom not to report inconvenient truths, the media resorts to fabrication and bias in condemning its targets."

However, some, such as Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan member Ichiro Ozawa, have openly embraced the RSF's evaluation. 

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On May 4, Ozawa's office posted on X expressing concern about the alleged decline in press freedom. "This country has experienced incredible democratic backsliding," the House of Representatives member declared. "The Liberal Democratic Party's destruction of the Constitution raises concerns about the resurgence of censorship-like suppression of speech. Citizens should be more concerned."

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(Read the article in Japanese.)

Author: Shimpei Okuhara