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Sunday, June 22, 2008


How can the press be free if it's used as a public-relations tool?

The Supreme Court's decision on June 12 to reverse a lower-court ruling that had found in favor of a women's group received a fair share of concerned media coverage. The suit involved a program NHK had produced about a 2001 citizens' tribunal, which prosecuted Japan's wartime leaders on behalf of sex slaves and found the late Emperor Showa guilty of war crimes. The nongovernment organization Violence Against Women in War-Network had cosponsored the tribunal and worked with an NHK-affiliated production company on the program. VAWW-NET was dismayed when the result not only avoided mention of the verdict, but also watered down the content of the tribunal.

Convinced that the public broadcaster had bowed to pressure from rightwing groups and politicians who objected to the mock trial itself, the NGO sued NHK and its affiliate. In January 2007, the Tokyo High Court recognized VAWW-NET's "right of expectation" in the matter, since the group cooperated with the production in the belief that the tribunal would be covered in its entirety. The Supreme Court thought otherwise, saying that the independence of news-gathering organizations must be ensured, and that guaranteeing a right of expectation to news sources or subjects automatically violates a new organization's right to report the news as it sees fit. The VAWW-NET suit has been problematic from the beginning, even to those who support the group and believe NHK neglected its responsibility by airing the program in the form it did. News coverage would be greatly restricted if subjects could sue because a story they were involved in did not meet their expectations. But as Rumiko Nishino, a representative of VAWW-NET, told reporters after the Supreme Court verdict, the group didn't take it as a defeat since the suit brought the matter greater attention and "revealed what happened" at NHK.

Editorials in the vernacular press sided with the Supreme Court, with the more conservative Yomiuri and Sankei newspapers condemning the original citizen's tribunal rather than the subsequent lawsuit. Tokyo Shimbun, however, made a point of mentioning that the Supreme Court, while correct in its verdict, significantly avoided the most vital question in the case: Did NHK cave in to pressure from politicians? The High Court based its verdict on its conclusion that such pressure had been exerted, so, according to the Tokyo Shimbun, it made no sense for the Supreme Court to reverse the High Court decision without addressing that conclusion. And it was that belief in the power of politicians such as former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who met with NHK executives prior to the airing of the program, that is at the heart of the case. NHK asserted its right to edit the program's content as it saw fit, said Tokyo Shimbun, but the broadcaster didn't assert any such rights toward powerful politicians. By ignoring this aspect of the case, the Supreme Court actually weakened its argument about press freedoms.

It's no secret that Japanese politicians look upon the media as public-relations tools, and, unfortunately, too many media outlets seem to accept this role. On June 6, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party lodged a protest with TV Asahi over a comment that anchorman Ichiro Furutachi made on its nightly news program "Hodo Station." During a story about the controversial new medical-insurance system for people over 75, a video was shown of LDP executives chatting and laughing before attending a meeting to discuss the system, which many people claim is unfair.

Furutachi said, "How can they be laughing?" (It should be noted that Furutachi is no liberal firebrand. He was quite fawning toward Abe when he was prime minister.) The LDP demanded an apology, saying that TV Asahi would be barred from covering party meetings until they received one. And they got it. Furutachi announced he was sorry on air and the president of TV Asahi apologized as well.

What's interesting about the story is that the mainstream press did not take issue with it. In fact, they barely covered it at all. Asahi Shimbun, for instance, devoted only a few sentences to the matter. In an article in the weekly magazine Kinyobi, journalist Riko Ofuji pointed out that Furutachi, a sportscaster by training, is not a very good anchorman. He is too enamored of his own verbal facility and enjoys giving opinions on topics he really has no business commenting on. His crack about the LDP executives was indeed irresponsible. Could Furutachi really know if they were laughing at the expense of sick old people? And he should have been reprimanded by his producers. But the LDP reaction was even worse, she said. They have no right to prevent a news-gathering organization from covering the activities of the party that basically runs the country just because their feelings were hurt by a wise-guy announcer.

What's really disturbing is that no major news organization said as much, and Ofuji believes it's because the media and the political world have a "partner" relationship, when it should really be an adversarial one. Last March, during an executive-council meeting in the Upper House to discuss NHK's budget, the LDP's Hiroshige Seki spoke about the documentary series "NHK Special," which he thought was too obsessed with "current social problems" such as the working poor. He said the network should provide more "balance" by showing how things are in other countries such as China. Seki obviously doesn't watch much of NHK, because it does cover China's economy in detail. But NHK's specials are not opinion pieces. Poverty is treated as a news story, which is how VAWW-NET wanted the citizen's tribunal to be covered. In the end, however, NHK said it would study the matter. When the boss says do something, you do it.

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