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Sunday, May 11, 2008

MEDIA MIX

The authorities gain complete control of the stories


Prior to the recent retrial of a man who was eventually sentenced to death by the Hiroshima High Court for killing a woman and her 1-year-old child in 1999, the Broadcasting Ethics and Program Improvement Organization complained about the coverage of the case. The BPO said that media outlets concentrated on the story of Hiroshi Motomura, the husband of the murdered woman, to the exclusion of the defendant's story, thus producing an unbalanced view of the case so far.

After the sentencing, an unnamed TV news director explained to the Asahi Shimbun that while he understood the BPO's stance, the job of commercial broadcasters is to "describe human drama that viewers can appreciate." The grieving husband, who wanted the defendant to pay for his crime with his life even though he was a minor at the time of the killings, understood this dynamic and controlled the story by actively cultivating the media. Testimony showing how the defendant grew up in a violent household that drove his mother to suicide was mostly absent from coverage of the case, and one can assume that it was overlooked for the sake of Motomura, whom reporters openly admired for his dogged pursuit of a death sentence.

Controlling the story takes on a different meaning in another homocide case involving a minor. Psychiatrist Morimitsu Sakihama is now on trial for violating the Confidentiality Law by leaking information about a 17-year-old boy who started a fire that killed his stepmother and two siblings in Nara in 2006. Sakihama had tested the boy on behalf of the Nara Family Court, and because trials involving minors are closed to the public, his findings were confidential.

However, Sakihama was concerned about the intense media coverage of the case. The boy was under pressure from his physician father to excel in school, and most stories contextualized the killings within the social phenomenon known as "exam hell." The boy was afraid his father would find out he lied about passing a test he actually failed, and believed his father would kill him as a result. He set the fire to kill his father before he found out, but the rest of the family perished instead.

Coverage of the case implied that the boy nursed a grudge against his stepmother. Sakihama believed that wasn't the case. He diagnosed the boy as suffering from a form of Asperger's Syndrome, a developmental disability: Once the boy had made his mind up about something he couldn't change it, and having decided he would kill his father he went ahead and set the fire, even though his father was out that night.

Sakihama allowed a sympathetic reporter named Atsuko Kusanagi to read his report and transcripts of oral testimony. However, Kusanagi and her publisher, Kodansha, photographed the documents without Sakihama's knowledge and later released a book about the case with direct quotes from the documents, but no mention of Sakihama's ideas about Asperger's. Four months later, Sakihama was arrested.

Last month, the TV Asahi news show "Sunday Project" aired a report on the case in which both Kusanagi and Sakihama were interviewed. Kusanagi, who used to work at a facility for juvenile offenders, admitted her error and said she wished she could trade places with the psychiatrist. Kodansha has owned up to journalistic malfeasance after a third-party committee came to that conclusion early in April. Both Sakihama and Kusanagi said they simply wanted to tell the boy's side of the story, but it was only the psychiatrist who was arrested.

Sakihama was held for 19 days even though he never denied leaking the information. His lawyer believes Sakihama was held to intimidate the media, since two weeks after his arrest the office of Motomi Toichi, the psychiatrist who introduced Sakihama to Kusanagi, was also raided by police. Though Toichi was not charged, the well-publicized raid had an adverse effect on his practice. "My patients won't talk to me anymore," he told TV Asahi. A frequently quoted pundit on juvenile crime, Toichi probably won't be talking to the media anymore, either.

Kodansha was not raided. This tactic of targeting sources rather than the media follows a trend exemplified recently by the case of Hiromichi Ugaya, a journalist who was sued by music-industry organ Oricon for saying in a magazine article that Oricon's methodology for compiling pop charts is secretive and suspicious. Ugaya didn't write the article in question, he was simply quoted in it, but last month a judge found in Oricon's favor. Press freedom advocates have suggested that Oricon is sending a message to anyone who might be inclined to talk publicly about the same things Ugaya talked about. The prosecutors in the Sakihama case seem to be using a similar strategy, but for broader purposes.

In order to bring a case against someone who breaks the Confidentiality Law — which, by the way, hasn't been prosecuted in 45 years — an offended party must press charges. In this case, the offended parties are the boy, his father, and a proxy lawyer. The prosecutor told TV Asahi that the father and son wanted to "protect their privacy." Sakihama's lawyer, however, is more interested in the proxy, Koji Dohi, who it turns out was Japan's Public Prosecutor General from 1996 to '98.

Why, TV Asahi asked, is Dohi involved? He wouldn't talk to "Sunday Project" and neither would the father, who reportedly has owned up to his responsibility in the tragedy. Sakihama's lawyer thinks that the charge was the prosecutor's idea and that his client is being tried not for the sake of the father and son, but rather for the sake of "national policy." Fight with the news media over press freedom issues and you always lose in the arena of public opinion, so it's easier to preemptively scare off a reporter's most valuable tool, the informed source. In the end, the authorities control all stories.



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