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Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2011
Freedom of information threatened
A government committee headed by Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura on Oct. 7 decided to submit to the Diet in 2012 a bill to mete out severe punishment to people who leak "special secrets" related to diplomacy, national security and public order. The committee says that the purpose of the bill is to facilitate cooperation with foreign countries in sharing information. But the bill threatens to restrict the people's right to know and harm the healthy development of democracy.
Mr. Fujimura told the body, which consists of Cabinet aides, to pay due respect to the people's right to know and the freedom to gather and spread news. He also made the following points: The scope of special secrets must be limited and delineated, a procedure should be clearly established to declassify special secrets once such designation has become unnecessary, and the punishment for violators should be minimum.
Despite his remarks, the bureaucracy has a strong tendency to hide information from the public. Citizens and the Diet should strictly watch the committee's process to prepare the bill. At least it should make public the process so that people and the Diet will know the bill's content well in advance of its submission to the Diet.
Two incidents last year prompted the government to contemplate preparing the bill. On Oct. 28, a total of 114 government documents in five compressed files streamed onto the Internet. Most of them are believed to have been prepared by the Metropolitan Police Department's Third Foreign Affairs Division in charge of investigations related to international terrorism. They included the names and addresses of informants, a list of foreigners suspected of links with international terrorism, information provided by investigative authorities abroad and analysis of the bank accounts of embassies in Tokyo.
The other incident is the Nov. 4 leak onto YouTube of video footage showing Sept. 7 collisions between a Chinese trawler and two Japan Coast Guard patrols ships inside Japanese territorial waters off the Senkaku Islands. The government had decided not to make public the video footage to prevent a deterioration of relations between Japan and China.
Apart from the committee headed by Mr. Fujimura, which was established in December 2010, an experts' committee in January 2011 started discussions on the scope of special secrets, the method to maintain and manage them and punishment for those who leak such secrets. It submitted its report to the government in August.
According to the committee's blueprint for the bill, government ministries and agencies will designate their secret information whose leaking would greatly affect "national security, diplomacy and the maintenance of public safety and order" as "special secrets." Government workers who handle such secrets will be put to a vocational aptitude test. Their private life, spouses, history of travels abroad, history of administrative punishment, etc., will be examined. They will also have to take a drug test.
Under the National Public Service Law, national public servants who leak information they have come across through their work will be imprisoned for up to one year. The experts' committee thinks that this punishment is too light. It is considering putting people who leak "special secrets" behind bars for five years — the same sentence given to those who leak "defense secrets" since the 2001 revision of the Self-Defense Forces Law took effect. Some on the committee are even advocating up to 10 years imprisonment — the same time that is given to those who leak "special defense secrets" under the Japan-U.S. Mutual Defense Assistance Agreement. Workers of private companies that receive orders from the government and government workers who leak "special secrets" through negligence will also be punished.
The new bill is opposite to the Democratic Party of Japan's original attempt to make administration transparent through a revision of the Information Freedom Law. It proposed that if a person takes a government decision not to disclose particular documents to court, judges examine the documents "in camera" (or in private) and determine the propriety of the government decision.
But the Foreign Ministry, the Defense Ministry and the National Police Agency opposed and quashed the idea. A revision bill of the Freedom of Information Law now allows government organizations to refuse to submit their documents to courts if they greatly affect "national security, diplomacy and the maintenance of public safety and order." The newly introduced "special secrets" exactly overlap the documents given exceptional treatment by the current revision bill of the Freedom of Information Law.
Clearly some information related to defense and diplomacy must be protected. The problem is that government organizations will decide which documents should be designated as "special secrets." No other parties can decide whether their decision is correct. This could greatly limit the people's right to know. Journalists who try to get information from bureaucrats may also be punished. The important thing is to revise again a revision bill of the Freedom Information Law so that the original "in camera" examination will be restored. If the government submits the "special secrets" bill to the Diet, lawmakers should quash the bill.