Times of Crisis and Press Freedom

Setsuko Kamiya 神谷説子

We take it for granted that freedom of speech, press and all other forms of expression are guaranteed by the Constitution. In recent months, however, there have been signs of our constitutional rights being at risk, and since the hostage crisis in late January, this negative trend seems to be escalating. We want to think that the mass media would be on the frontline in defending our right to know, but some journalists and artists recently raised their voices against major news outlets for self-censorship and refraining from criticizing the government in times of crisis.

A somewhat clear sign of the government’s influence against major news organizations was already observed a year ago when the Shinzo Abe Cabinet appointed Katsuo Momii as chairman of NHK. Since his appointment, Momii has made remarks which indicated that he would not let the public broadcaster air programs featuring controversial issues before knowing what the government’s stance towards them are, which raised questions about NHK’s independence. Momii’s stance is apparently even affecting the broadcaster’s entertainment shows, according to popular comedian duo Bakusho Mondai who said in January that NHK had stopped them from criticizing politicians as part of their jokes.

And then there was that time prior to the general election in December when ruling Liberal Democratic Party Diet members wrote to TV stations seeking “fair coverage” of the election campaign. The written request asked broadcasters to be extra careful in their choice of topics for debate and guest commentators. This was taken as a sign that being too critical of the government would make it difficult to access influential political sources from then on. In fact, this apparently influenced TV Asahi’s popular midnight debate show Asa Made Nama Terebi. Chiki Ogiue, a young liberal critic, tweeted a day before the scheduled show that his invitation as a guest commentator was suddenly cancelled because the program changed course and was only putting politicians on the panel.

And during the recent hostage crisis, as the country closely watched what would become of the lives of the two captives — self-proclaimed private military consultant Haruna Yukawa and journalist Kenji Goto — the Foreign Ministry raised the level of alert in the Turkish and Syrian borders to an “evacuation order” and urged Japanese journalists to leave immediately to avoid becoming targets of kidnappings themselves. But when Asahi Shimbun reporters entered Syria after the warning, conservative competitors the Sankei Shimbun and the Yomiuri Shimbun reported critically about the liberal daily’s move to enter the zone despite government warnings. This attack against Asahi, I assume, partly has to do with Sankei and Yomiuri’s ongoing anti-Asahi campaign, but it also looked like a statement that they were going along with the government.

Meanwhile, former trade ministry bureaucrat Shigeaki Koga who was a guest commentator for TV Asahi’s evening news show Hodo Station, said he had received harsh criticism after he attacked the Prime Minister on the program, claiming that he mishandled the hostage crisis. Apparently, this invited negative calls and e-mails from angry viewers and triggered the broadcaster to stop asking Koga to appear on the program. Koga has said that the attacks against him became so alarming that police came to him to let him know that they will raise the security level of his neighborhood.

Observing the situation, documentary filmmaker Kazuhiro Soda, freelance journalist Hajime Imai and Koga voluntarily launched a campaign on February 9 to reaffirm the importance of free speech, especially in times of crisis. The petition, titled “Don’t Let ISIS Crisis Hobble Free Expression in Japan,” states that the signatories express their strong concern over the perceived societal pressure for broadcasters, news organizations and even Diet members to practice “self-restraint” and avoid any criticism of how the government has handled the hostage crisis. It also voiced concern over people who claim that in these times of crisis it is important for the nation to come together and support the government, because that was the same logic used during the time leading up to Japan’s entry to the war, when people were prohibited from any kind of government criticism. “The problem is that those who attack people critical of the government are unaware that they are creating such a support system for the government,” the statement reads.

As the campaign began, more than 1,200 writers, artists and journalists immediately became signatories of the statement, including musician Ryuichi Sakamoto and playwright Oriza Hirata. It’s a relief to know that there are still many individuals who are observing the situation with a sense of crisis, but aside from several individual journalists, only Asahi, Mainichi Shimbun and Tokyo Shimbun, which are regarded as liberal dailies, reported on this campaign. The hostage crisis has cast light on many issues, and it has also shown the precarious state of our right to know.