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Saturday, May 31, 2003

Privacy laws will make media gun shy: critic

Staff writer

OSAKA -- The lack of public debate over the new private information protection laws reflects a cultural -- not a legal -- problem, and the media will now operate in an atmosphere of intimidation by bureaucrats, warns a leading critic of the legislation.

Noboru Tsubaki, an internationally renowned artist best known for designing a giant balloon grasshopper displayed on the Yokohama Grand Intercontinental Hotel during a cultural event a couple of years ago, has written several books on Japanese media and numerous columns for mainstream and tabloid publications on the new laws.

For the Kobe-based Tsubaki, the new laws, which oblige private firms to explain why they are collecting personal information and ban them from giving the data to a third party without the consent of the people in question, are simply another sign of Japan's social ills.

"The privacy bills represent a cultural, not a legal problem," the 50-year-old artist said during a recent meeting of journalists and academics held in Osaka.

"Although the Japanese showed concern on political and social issues up to the 1960s, they stopped thinking about serious issues around 1970, and became interested only in consumption.

"It is because of this anti-intellectual trend over the past three decades that the privacy bills were passed so easily," he argued. "No one wants to debate things like freedom of speech. Japanese lack wisdom, which means the ability to understand what is important in terms of justice."

What worries him most is that the new laws, which were enacted by the Diet last week, will stifle the ability of Japan's aggressive tabloid press to ferret out the truth.

"The major scandals of the past quarter-century, from dirty deals done by Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka in the early 1970s to the financial scandals surrounding farm minister Tadamori Oshima earlier this year, were broken by the tabloid media," he said.

The highly controversial laws were passed after the government revised them so that newspapers, television stations, academics and religious and political groups would be exempt.

"The only reason the bills were passed in revised form was that, after the mainstream media kicked up a fuss over the original bills last year, they and bureaucrats cooperated on a new version that made weekly magazines the scapegoat," Tsubaki maintained.

Although media are exempt from regulations on the use of private information, Tsubaki said the government has achieved its purpose.

"What has been created is a sense of fear among the media that they cannot go too far," he said.

"Most bureaucrats don't want to directly confront the media in court. They want, instead, to intimidate media organizations so they will censor themselves, and they have accomplished their goal with these laws."

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The Japan Times

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