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Saturday, May 24, 2003

Magazines to fight on over new privacy laws


Staff writer

One of the most controversial sets of bills in recent years was voted into law Friday by the Upper House, despite criticism from journalists the measures could be used to suffocate scandal magazines -- the No. 1 enemy of politicians with shady backgrounds.

But the Japan Magazine Publishers' Association has vowed to continue to fight the new privacy data protection laws by reporting every minute detail of every scandal if the laws are ever unfairly invoked against magazines.

They are ready to identify who intervened, as well as how and what they tried to hide by resorting to the letter of the law, according to the head of the association's project team on the issue.

"We all agree that we will report all the processes, although the (final) decision is up to (editors and reporters) working on the front line," said Ryokichi Yama, also general manager of the general affairs department of publisher Shogakukan Inc., during an interview Friday.

The association, which consists of 91 firms that publish 1,200 magazines nationwide, has consistently opposed the legislation. Opposition from major newspapers and TV companies waned significantly after key parts of the bills were watered down or dropped entirely by the government.

The laws, when implemented, will oblige private-sector corporations to specify why they are collecting personal information, notify people when businesses obtain their personal data and prohibit them from offering the data to a third party without the consent of the individuals in question.

Similar rules will be applied to government bodies, although opponents argue they are far more lenient than those for the private sector.

To protect freedom of the press and freedom of expression, the laws state that the new regulations will not be applied to newspapers, TV stations, academic researchers, religious groups or political groups.

But "magazine publishers" -- the primary source of information on sex and corruption scandals that have rocked the political scene in recent years -- are not clearly defined as also being exempt.

Answering questions in the Diet, the minister in charge of the bills said magazine publishers can be exempt from the regulations, depending on the government's interpretation of the laws.

But Yama argued there is no guarantee that such pledges by government officials -- though they are the government's official view -- will be respected by judges in libel trials.

Yama charged that the primary target of the bills are the scandal magazines, which have terminated the careers of a number of key politicians by reporting scandals the mainstream media won't touch.

Yama emphasized that scandal magazines have a role to play in society, as demonstrated with a number of scoops that have forced corrupt politicians to resign.

Virtually every major figure in the government and ruling parties is currently fighting a libel lawsuit against magazines. Many of the allegations have eventually proved to be true or, at the very least, left troubling questions unanswered. They include former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, current LDP Diet affairs chief Hidenao Nakagawa, Lower House member Muneo Suzuki and former Foreign Minister Makiko Tanaka.

"Reporters of major newspapers or TV companies cannot report on such things because they're too close (to the news sources)," Yama said.

According to Yama, the magazine association repeatedly petitioned key figures in the ruling bloc to include magazine publishers as exempt from the laws.

But they refused, saying Cabinet members and figures in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party " persistently argued" that magazine publishers should not be exempt, Yama said.

The government definition of "reporting" to be exempted from the new regulations is another serious problem for magazines, Yama said.

According to the government's interpretation, the description of "reporting" in the laws means activities to "let unspecified people know of objective facts as facts."

But Yama said the definition is too vague and the regulations could be interpreted as even applying to preliminary but essential research before "reporting" is carried out, including gathering data such as names, addresses, career records and other background information.

After all, the border between gathering hidden information on characters who operate on the edge of legality and the violation of individuals' privacy appears to be a very fine one.

Yet according to the laws, as Yama pointed out, a government minister -- not an independent body, as opposition parities demanded -- will have the task of dealing with complaints over how the laws are applied.



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