In Japan this year, the reporters have become the reported.
It’s seems there’s been one journalism furor after another in recent months: first up, the left-leaning Asahi Shimbun retracted a bunch of stories on “comfort women” that it published on the issue in the 1980s and 1990s.
The Asahi also had to withdraw a faulty report about the Fukushima nuclear disaster, and admitted an “interview” it ran with the president of Nintendo was actually a bunch of statements off the gaming company’s Web site.
Japan’s conservative newspapers – which is, to say, most of Japan’s newspapers – leapt on the comfort women retraction in particular, using it to suggest that the whole narrative about women being forced into sexual slavery was made up. (This has been established as a historical fact by independent academics and experts).
Shinzo Abe, the right-wing prime minister who wants to make Japan a “beautiful country” again, and his government also seized the opportunity to put the boot into their journalistic nemesis.
Then came the astounding apology from the Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan’s largest newspaper with a circulation over 10 million and a strong supporter of Abe, for using the words “sex slaves” to refer to comfort women, “as if coercion by the Japanese government or the army was an objective fact.”
Most recently, the Sankei Shimbun, which is even more to the right than the Yomiuri, had to admit that one of its stories about the Asahi Shimbun’s misreporting scandals had shortcomings of its own.
Phew. But now, they’ve got something new to argue over, and it concerns journalism directly.
A new state secrets law was implemented this week, ramping up penalties on leakers and whistle-blowers, and sparking concerns about greater government control over the press.
The Japan Congress of Journalists said the law would “cover the people’s eyes, ears and mouth and usurp their freedom of the press and speech,” while the Japan Newspaper Publishers & Editors Association said the law was too vague. “There is still suspicion that government and administrative agencies will designate inconvenient information” as state secrets, it said.
Japan Civil Liberties Union said the law “inappropriately restricts citizens’ right to know.”
Under the law, civil servants who share designated state secrets can be sentenced up to 10 years in prison, while accomplices could face as many as five years in the slammer. Critics say this could extend to journalists who publish leaked material, but Abe said he would resign if the new law crimped press freedoms.
In an editorial welcoming the law, the Yomiuri said it was crucial so that Japan would be able to share information with its allies.
“Taking a unified step across the entire government to prevent sensitive information from being leaked, a measure considered to be on a par with those in other advanced nations, is essential for Japan to build a relationship of trust with other countries and obtain valuable information from them,” the paper wrote.
Tsuneo Watanabe, chairman and editor in chief of The Yomiuri Shimbun, was chief of the government advisory panel established to implement the law, which was passed a year ago.
Of course, the Asahi had an entirely different point of view.
“The law could be used against media organizations and citizens groups seeking government information,” it wrote in an editorial. “Once this law is abused, there is no guarantee that it will never come to be used to control or intimidate news organizations and citizens groups that do not kowtow to the administration of the time.”
Whether Abe will resign is totally irrelevant, the paper said. “What is at issue is whether the law comes with a fully practicable safeguard against abuse by any administration. We cannot say this is the case with the law as we have it now,” it said.
Japan’s not the only place in the neighborhood where press freedoms are being threatened (although of course, the issue of press freedom is an entirely different issue across the water in North Korea and China).
In South Korea, analysts and journalists are expressing concern the press is under threat.
President Park Geun-hye’s administration has launched an aggressive crackdown on media outlets that run reports it considers unfavorable, leading to a raft of domestic defamation cases and one high-profile suit against a conservative Japanese journalist.