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Friday, April 20, 2012

Lawyer crusades for more disclosure

Slack reporting on nuclear crisis raises sovereignty fears, ex-journalist warns


By KEIJI HIRANO
Kyodo

Kazuo Hizumi was almost unique among reporters who flocked to Tepco news conferences to cover the crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant.

News photo
Digging deeper: Lawyer Kazuo Hizumi speaks about the Fukushima nuclear disaster and its coverage by the media during a recent event in Tokyo. KYODO

Doubting whether Tokyo Electric Power Co. and the government were disclosing enough information about how the catastrophe was unfolding, The Tokyo-based lawyer attended around 100 briefings at the utility through December and continued to put questions to company officials.

"I could take part in the press conferences by presenting my business card, and I continued attending because they did not provide criticial information," Hizumi, 49, said. "I sometimes sought advice from nuclear experts and explored overseas documents about low-dose exposure so I could throw in detailed questions, as I myself am not an expert in these fields."

Criticism grew that Japan's failure to publicly disclose data on how the fallout would disperse in the atmosphere caused many people around the damaged facility to be exposed to radiation. The fallout patterns were projected by the government's System for Prediction of Environmental Emergency Dose Information, or SPEEDI.

It has also been claimed that the impact of low-dose exposure was not fully scrutinized, with officials repeatedly hedging their public assurances by saying it would "not have an immediate effect on human health."

It took the government roughly a month to raise the severity level of the nuclear emergency to 7, the maximum on the international scale, and even more time to formally admit that three reactors had suffered meltdowns.

Hizumi thought too little information was being provided because the authorities were not properly responding to the disaster, and felt his efforts to extract clear explanations about the situation would somehow help the public deal with it.

With a keen need to document how Tepco and the government have tackled the unprecedented disaster and how they tried, or tried not to, convey information to the public, Hizumi has written two books, both published by Iwanami Shoten Publishers in Tokyo.

"News Conferences on the Fukushima Nuclear Disaster — What Did Tepco and the Government Conceal?" coauthored by freelance journalist Ryuichi Kino, who also attended the news conferences, clarifies through detailed exchanges at the press briefings how reluctant the utility and the government were to disclose information.

"Who are Participants in Sovereignty?" meanwhile presents proposals on how to achieve the principle that sovereignty resides with the people.

"The basic idea of these books is that we need to have correct information so we can appropriately determine how to behave as sovereigns," Hizumi said, who also questioned whether the major media organizations have fully served the public for that purpose.

As a lawyer, Hizumi has been involved in several lawsuits relating to information disclosure and media activities, including one in which around two dozen plaintiffs have sought disclosure of diplomatic documents on the 1972 reversion of Okinawa from U.S. control.

One of the plaintiffs Hizumi is representing with other lawyers is a former reporter who was arrested and indicted in the 1970s for his reporting on a secret bilateral pact on the cost burden of the reversion. The government's prosecution of the reporter, which ended in a conviction, raised concerns that freedom of the press was being infringed.

Hizumi has also served as chief editor of the website News for the People in Japan, which was launched in 2008 by lawyers, freelance journalists and others from various fields to report on issues largely ignored by the mainstream media.

He solicited readers' opinions on what he should ask at Tepco's press briefings on the nuclear disaster.

"I found they were interested not only in the latest developments but also in followups on past events if they are concerned with their health," he said.

Hizumi's career apparently reflects his experience of working as a reporter at a major newspaper for several years before becoming a certified lawyer in 1998. Attending the news conferences and publishing the books "made me feel like I had returned to my journalistic career," he said.

He also expressed skepticism about the quality of the reporting by the major media outlets.

"Reporters of established media organizations just conveyed what Tepco and the government released," tapping away on their laptops during news conferences.

"It was inevitable for them as they had to send updated stories by the next deadline, but I think major media should contrive ways to do in-depth reports, for example, by depending more on informed veteran reporters, to fulfill their duty as a watchdog of power," he said.

He also suggested that news conferences should be more accessible to freelance journalists.

"Information belongs to the public, and it will be better for us to have many channels to obtain information," he said.

Hizumi plans to publish another book, targeting mainly high school students, to explain the systems, including those overseas, that are being used to safeguard people's sovereignty.

He was diagnosed with gallbladder cancer in May while attending the news conferences and was given six months to live. He has been exempted from work at his law firm.

"I was shocked with the diagnosis, but I may be given the opportunity, fatally in a way, to do what I want and have to do, such as writing books."



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