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Tuesday, Feb. 10, 2004

Media restrictions pose a threat to democratic society

Government restrictions on Japanese press coverage in Iraq are a cause for massive concern, media expert Takaaki Hattori tells Satoko Kogure

Q. Why is the SDF and Defense Ministry so intent on controlling the flow of information from Iraq?

News photo
Takaaki Hattori

A: The Defense Ministry says it wants to protect Self Defense Forces in Iraq (and this is certainly one reason); however, the government also seems determined to dispatch forces to Iraq and keep them there with as little potential for criticism as possible. Controlling the media -- for example, through reducing press briefings, emphasizing information on the government Web site, issuing conditional press passes and warning off journalists -- is the natural way to achieve this.

What is frightening, though, is that during WWII, under the Maintenance of Public Order Act, the Japanese media were similarly restricted. Under the Japanese Constitution (Article 21), there is theoretically freedom of speech in Japan, yet the Defense Ministry is unashamedly attempting to restrict media reporting. The government wants the media to be a PR resource, to uncritically support government policy. What is especially worrying is how easily the Defense Ministry can restrict the media in this way -- it takes control for granted.

Q. How has the Japanese media reacted to these restrictions?

A. There has been coverage but far too little controversy over controlling the media. Some media have been critical, but the criticism and reporting of the issue have not been especially convincing. The Defense Ministry states that in that they want to avoid confusion in Iraq. But asking questions and a certain element of confusion should be entirely normal in circumstances such as these. While the safety of the troops is the priority, they must separate safety and reporting issues.

Q. Can the Defense Ministry legally control the media in this way?

A. They are attempting to control the media in spite of Article 21. In America, they have the First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of speech and of the press. Americans place huge importance on this right. But in Japan, there's not much discussion about freedom of speech. If the American government publicly attempted to control the media in this way there would be huge controversy generated by the media, but in Japan, where we have the same right and believe in the right to exercise it, there has been no real discussion.

Dispatching troops to Iraq is a costly exercise, and part of the cost is borne by the taxpayer. If the government is spending taxpayers' money on this policy, then the public has a right to know the results of the policy. By controlling the media, the government is playing dirty.

Q. What implications could these restrictions have?

A. When Jessica Lynch revealed the true circumstances surrounding her capture, she took a very brave step, but one she felt she could take in a society where people value and seek to protect their rights, and are not afraid to tell the truth. But we don't have this environment now in Japan. There is no Japanese soldier who can risk being honest -- in other words, I believe there will be no Jessica Lynch in Japan. This is not a sign of a well society.

Q. How do you evaluate the media coverage of the dispatch and the imposition of restrictions on reporting?

A. Throughout January, the mass media have been reporting about SDF ceremonies, Defense Ministry news conferences etc., but among all this, there is very little being written about how the Japanese public feel about the issue. It's shameful. The other day, in a very rare example, TBS interviewed the families of SDF troops. They focused on the human element of the dispatch, the risks, and the worry felt by families.

The dispatch is clearly a social issue for Japan as well as a political one.

Media reporting on this issue is not one that should, under any circumstances, simply be focused only on Nagata-cho and the political activities surrounding the sending of troops. But this is what the government is demanding the media do. In this sense the media just becomes a mouthpiece for the government.

Q. Why is broad reporting so important at this time?

A. It's crucial for journalism to be active, because war is a matter of life and death. The mass media are too easily cowed by the government. The papers covered the restrictions, but there was nowhere near enough discussion of the implications of the Defense Ministry attempting to control the media.

Q. The safety of the SDF must be a priority, so is the way the government has handled this issue so objectionable?

A. The government is not trying to hide the fact that it wants the mission to be a success and will do whatever it takes to make it a success -- including controlling the media. But by arguing that open media coverage will put troops' priceless lives at risk, and then muzzling the media for this reason, they are essentially suppressing the media without any legal basis.

Q. Where the Japanese media is concerned, there doesn't seem to be a willingness to examine their own role in shaping public opinion, otherwise they wouldn't follow the government line so readily. Is this a fair assessment?

A. The Japanese media are very good at reporting on foreign issues -- NHK, for example, makes excellent documentaries about other countries -- but when it comes to our own domestic issues, their coverage is not so good.

I think it's maybe a characteristic of Japanese media. Even local media in Japan isn't good at criticizing their own areas. Japanese media tend to hesitate in covering critical issues on their own doorstep.

Q. If the media continue to operate under government restrictions, is the public more likely to support government policy?

A. Absolutely. The media must be willing to pursue the truth, because they are the public's eyes and ears. Before the Japanese media went to Iraq, I was worried that they would become a PR machine for the government. But with the restrictions now in place it's even worse than that.

Q. In a democratic society, must the media act as a check on the government?

A. Yes, it's the media's responsibility. The media's function has become unclear. But if the media's job is to represent the public, then what's happening now runs contrary to that.'

Prof. Takaaki Hattori is a faculty member in the Department of Sociology at Rikkyo University, Tokyo

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