Press Freedom in Japan - The Challenges

Oct. 7, 2016

On 5th October 2016, Professor of Political Science at the Faculty of Liberal Arts Koichi Nakano and investigative journalist Toshihiro Okuyama spoke to BCCJ members and guests over lunch about the reasons for Japan's poor ranking in this year's World Press Freedom Index.

BCCJ President, David Bickle, opened the event by highlighting that in this year's World Press Freedom Index, produced by the non-profit group Reporters Without Borders, Japan slipped 11 places, and now ranks a shocking 72nd (of 180 countries) for media independence.

Bickle asked the panelists, "To what extent are journalists in Japan really fettered by the government? Put another way, to what extent can you believe what you read in the Japanese press?"

Japanese newspapers, history, and machtpolitik

In response, Koichi Nakano, Professor of Political Science at the Faculty of Liberal Arts at Sophia University began by warning that there is often a tendency to overly focus on Prime Minister Abe's influence and the effects of the implementation of the Sate Secrecy Law in 2013. "While this is obviously highly controversial," said Nakano, "the Japanese media system in itself has weaknesses which contribute significantly to a poor press freedom ranking, and these should not be ignored."

Examples, said Nakano, include the stronghold of bureaucracy and control excercised by Japanese newspapers since pre-war times. "None of the major newspapers in Japan were required to reflect upon their role in and influence in the Second World War and there has been little if no introspection."

The speaker then pointed out that the kisha club system in Japan — media associations formed (also pre-war) around certain groups and government organizations through which reporters are granted access — were also a major obstacle in terms of media independence.

Nakano also highlighted that it is almost impossible for large media companies to be critical when they have management members and journalists serving on the boards of government councils. He also mentioned that Japanese media agencies have branched out into other business aread such as real estate. When so heavily involved in these industries, Nakano warned of the conflicts of interest and asked just how critical such media outlets can then actually be of Abenomics.

Employment structures at large Japanese media companies are similar to other large Japanese corporations, said Nakano, whcih means that "employees work and stay at the company for the rest of their working life. These employees have a great sense of loyalty to their company which can result in a lack of professional solidarity with other journalists. Reporters working in such an environment are not as concerned about press freedom as their counterparts in the West."

The speaker pointed out that more often than not, it is the weekly magazines that uncover scandals because journalists working for reputable newspaper agencies are not given permission to cover such stories. High-calibre reporters are forced to work within the constraints of the company.

Coming back to Prime Minister Abe's role in the increasing constraints placed upon the press, Nakano emphasised the fact that with a two-thirds majority for the LDP in both Houses, there is essentially no opposition party in Japan which has emboldened Abe's government and has resulted in his administration increasing pressure on journalists to toe the government line.

"Abe's revisionist tendencies are difficult for journalists to swallow and academics do not like to see distortion of the truth. With a two-thrids majority, the prime minister now has the opportunity to change the constitution. A referendum would be necessary, but as has recently been demonstrated in the UK, referendums are volatile and the results could have a massive impact on the future freedom of the press."

Investigative journalism - the obstacles

Investigative journalist Toshihiro Okuyama opened his talk by debunking a myth about the "ineffectiveness" of Japanese investigative journalism. He reminded the audience of the fact that Japanese journalists had been successful in toppling three prime ministers (Tanaka, Takeshita, and Hatoyama) while in the US this had only happened with Nixon and in the UK not at all!

He also examined the coverage of 3/11 and gave clear examples of critical reporting by the Japanese media of developments at the nuclear power station in Fukushima, despite claims by foreign media that the Japanese media hadn't been critical enough.

The speaker conceded, however, that investigative journalists in Japan face several major obstacles.

The implementation of the controversial state secrecy protection law in 2013 which stipulates penalties against leaks of government information designated as confidential was obviously a huge blow to press freedom in Japan.

Civil defamation lawsuits are a huge burden for Japanese reporters. "Being truthful is not enough", said Okuyama. In most legal situations, the burden of proof lies on the plaintiff, but in civil defence suits in Japan, the defendant has to prove that his or her coverage is accurate. There has recently also been a considerable escalation in the amount of damages faced by journalists - sometimes in the range of tens of thousands of pounds - which acts as a deterrent against critical writing.

"The random nature of judges' orders in terms of fairness also weighs heavily on the minds of journalists". Coverage can be deleted upon a whim of a judge, "and it is humiliating to journalists when state power supresses coverage with an order to erase their work. This happens increasingly regularly and blatantly," said Okuyama.

An additional hurdle, the speaker said, is that "news from other media may not simply be quoted. All sources must be individually verified in order to be able to defend the accuracy of content in court." 

Okuyama lamented that these developments have resulted in the public becoming much more cynical about the reliability of newspaper content and a more suspicious stance towards journalists in general.

In conclusion, the speaker argued that investigative journalists in Japan are still independent and do their job thoroughly, but it now involves a lot more pressure and stress.

The future of newspapers 

In the subsequent Q&A session, questions on various issues were posed such as the influence the Nikkei will have on the editorial clout of the Financial Times after the takeover; the extent to which Japanese news agencies can now be trusted; the future of newspapers in the digital age.

Both speakers confirmed that technological advances and the emergence of new news acquisition trends were a major challenge for the larger, traditional news agencies. Japanese youth, it was agreed, are more likely to get their news from the Yahoo! news portal than a newspaper, but this news is all pre-selected.

"News addicts in the digital age are well informed in a certain way, but the public is no longer sharing the same news resulting in polarised debates. Digitalised, customised news sources can divide society, moving people further away from common ground", said Nakano.

Indeed, whether political, judicial, or technological, the Japanese press is faced with many new challenges. It remains to be seen what solutions will be found.

Photos of the event can be viewed on BCCJ Flickr HERE


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