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Sunday, May 12, 2002


The free press exercise their muscles

In addition to being Japan's Constitution Day and the United Nations' Press Freedom Day, May 3 marked the 15th anniversary of the unsolved murder of Asahi Shimbun reporter Tomohiro Kojiri in Kobe.

These three commemorations were mentioned in the same paragraph in the Asahi's commentary about Kojiri's death, written by the managing editor of the Osaka head office. The statute of limitations ran out at midnight that day, and while the police have not arrested a suspect, a rightwing organization calling itself Sekihotai, which considers the newspaper's left-of-center viewpoint offensive and unpatriotic, has claimed responsibility.

In addition to the commentary and a profile of Sekihotai, the newspaper published an article by Kojiri's family and a message from the executive editor promising that the Asahi, despite the expiration, would pursue the case "without limitations." The pieces contained a lot of noble sentiments about a "free and open society" and an "unwavering" dedication to truth.

The writers did not neglect to connect it all to the human rights bill currently before the Diet that would put a limit on reporters' news-gathering activities. In a sense, Asahi's tearful tribute to a comrade slain in the line of duty was the perfect emotional capper to several months of dogged, detailed coverage of the proposed law. All the media have analyzed the bill extensively, but the Asahi, as the self-appointed liberal conscience of Japan, has been particularly obsessive.

Which isn't to imply that the obsessiveness is unjustified. The government would like nothing better than to make it difficult for the media to butt into its affairs, and thus inserted a vague but broadly applicable condition into the bill about a reporter's "obligation to obtain a news subject's consent before releasing data," which is ostensibly meant to protect crime victims and suspects' families from "intrusive journalism." Basically, though, it means that journalists have to ask politicians if it's OK to tell everyone that they're accepting kickbacks from construction companies.

The government's cynicism doesn't stop there. In fact, it preceded the bill itself. What most of the public fails to grasp is that the Justice Ministry came up with this so-called human rights protection bill as a form of legislative lip service.

For years, the United Nations Human Rights Committee has been pressing Japan to bring its laws into line with the rest of the developed world in matters such as civil rights with regard to children born out of wedlock, detaining criminal suspects and regulating alien residents. Over the years, the ministry has attempted to come up with something to placate the UNHRC, but the measures have been so full of loopholes as to be meaningless.

Matters came to a head in the early '90s, when the European Union restricted data transfers to Japan because there were no laws in place here to protect information on individuals. The government started working on a bill to strengthen such protection. Then, three years ago, the Justice Ministry announced the computerization of resident-registration information, which would mean all the data on individuals kept by local governments would be centralized. Again, foreign entities demanded that an independent organization be established to make sure the government did not abuse the system.

That system will start this summer with the distribution of numbers for all citizens. The human rights bill contains directives on how to handle private data, but no real protections. It does, however, contain that convenient rule limiting "intrusive journalism." Even worse, the committee that will supposedly supervise these rules is part of the Justice Ministry, so we can expect more outside pressure.

Or maybe not. Despite the prime minister's vow to get the bill passed, it's entirely possible that the stink raised by the media has doomed it. However, the death of the legislation would only mean something if people understood that the government is not only trying to tie the hands of the media, but is also sidestepping civil rights violations that are essentially woven into the fabric of Japanese society, if not the Civil Code itself.

The media has promised to mend their evil ways with regard to what has been referred to as "predatory journalism." They have set up an industry watchdog group. Aomori Broadcasting pledged that it will not seek interviews with families of crime victims. Well-known TV reporter Shuntaro Torigoe repeatedly sent handwritten (with a brush, no less) letters to the father of a murdered woman apologizing for the media's blanket implication that she somehow asked for it. Even weekly magazines, the only media organs that probably need to worry if the bill is passed, have begun publishing phone numbers that citizens can call to lodge complaints about nosy reporters.

This two-pronged strategy to defeat the bill and, at the same time, deal with the problem the bill supposedly addresses is similar to the Asahi's Kojiri tributes in its earnestness. For all the media's vocal, heartfelt dedication to the principles of a free press and their constant claims that "the public has a right to know," journalism in Japan often misses the point of such lofty sentiments, as evidenced by the fact that all the high-profile political scandals that emerged in the past four months were not uncovered by the vernacular dailies, but rather by the non-mainstream weeklies.

Of course, it's the weeklies that are also the worst perpetrators of predatory journalism. This is a paradox that bears closer examination, but in any case, the media as a whole should remember that the rights of a free press are like muscles: Use 'em or lose 'em.

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