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Thursday, Jan. 26, 2006

Access to courts no given under freedom of press, judge rules

Staff writer

The Tokyo District Court dismissed a journalist's suit Wednesday over the press club system and government discrimination against freelance reporters, ruling media access to court proceedings does not fall under freedom of the press.

Yu Terasawa, 38, had demanded 2.48 million yen on grounds that his access to the court system was limited because he was not a member of the "kisha kurabu" (reporter club), saying it was unfair discrimination against freelance journalists and an obstruction of freedom of the press, in violation of Articles 14 and 21 of the Constitution.

In April 2003, Terasawa was in Sapporo to cover the trial of a former police officer charged with illegal possession of drugs and guns.

One week prior to the verdict, Terasawa contacted the Sapporo District Court to get a seat in the gallery and a transcript of the ruling. Both requests were denied.

A few months later, Terasawa was asked to leave his seat during a Tokyo District Court session. He was told he was sitting in a spot reserved for a press club member. He was forced to leave the courtroom as there were no other empty seats.

The freelance journalist of 17 years filed his lawsuit in October 2004 based on these two incidents.

Presiding Judge Takafumi Okuda ruled that while freedom of the press should be guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution, he said, "It cannot be said that media organizations have the right to have seats in the (court) gallery or to receive copies of court rulings. And that includes the plaintiff."

The courthouse "has no legal obligation to reserve seats in the gallery for the press," Okuda said. "It is done for the sake of convenience to assist in speedy and accurate reporting to the public."

Okuda said it was reasonable for courts to limit the reserved seating to members of press clubs because it is extremely difficult for the courts to assess quickly which media outlets and reporters should be given priority seating.

Terasawa plans to appeal.

"Freedom of the press and (journalists') right to report originates in the public's right to know," Terasawa said outside the courtroom. "And on that basis, (journalists) naturally should have the right to request seats in the gallery and copies of rulings -- to guarantee the public's right to know."

This is Terasawa's second lawsuit on press access. The reporter sued the government in 1999 after being excluded from proceedings in the Matsuyama District Court in Ehime Prefecture in 1996.

His case was dismissed all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled in 2003.

"I believe press clubs will eventually collapse," Terasawa said. Reporters who are members "are just passing on official announcements made by government agencies without corroborating the information."

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The Japan Times

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