Originally published in December 2014
Missing : Japan’s Freedom of The Press—once ranked number 22 in the world, she has been in ill-health and mistreated since Prime Minister Shinzo Abe became the new sheriff of Japan in 2012. Last seen at midnight on December 9th. Government sources who would not go on the record, for fear of being sent to jail for ten years, believe that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the ruling coalition may have played a role in the kidnapping of this freedom but were unable to confirm.
December 14 is Election Day in Japan. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party is expected to maintain power, but what many have overlooked amid the election news is December 10 – the day that a controversial state secrets law goes into full effect
The law, passed last year, symbolically represents Japan’s aspiration to return to international prominence – but could prove ominous for journalists and the public. It allows Japan’s 19 government ministries to designate certain information as state secrets. The state secret classification lasts five years, a period that can be extended to 60 years. Any civil servant that shares the classified secrets and any journalist that works with the leaked information could face up to 10 years of imprisonment. In simple terms, a government employee that leaks a classified secret can receive up to ten years in jail. A reporter or citizen that urges the official to release information or works with the person to do so can be sent to jail for up to five years. In other words, a reporter who aggressively asks about matters deemed secret can go to jail for the questions alone.
“I see this… as [Abe] sending a message: the Japanese state is powerful and it has all these security interests in mind,” said Darren Zook, a political science professor at the University of California at Berkeley.
Abe’s conservative government has justified the state secrets law as necessary for the creation of an agency in Japan similar to the U.S. National Security Council. The law seeks to offset reluctance among Japanese government offices for fear of leaks.
The law also seeks to combat U.S. defense information leaks out of Japan, which Abe hopes to ensure by showing that he is in charge.
The law’s critics, including the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, have voiced their concerns about the policy allowing government overreach and impeding the main tenet of a liberal democracy – where a free and open press serves as a check on government power. The law’s ambiguity and breadth in Japan also means there is more opportunity for abuse, said Koichi Nakano, political science professor at Sophia University in Tokyo.
Recent revelations about the lack of regulation at the Fukushima nuclear plant is an example of stories that may not have been uncovered if the law was in place. In the future, other news stories about nuclear power and other environmental concerns – relevant to the public’s interest – could also be classified, Nakano added.
Although most coverage of the state secrets law has revolved around its obvious detriment to press freedom, the damage to journalism within Japan may be minimal. Despite a guarantee of press freedom in its constitution, Japan’s passive cultural environment has never provided fertile grounds for investigative journalism to thrive, Zook said.
What’s more concerning is that Japan’s state secrets law is just one in a series of increased measures that restrict within liberal democracies in the name of security. Canada, New Zealand and Australia have all passed similar laws, said Bob Dietz, the Asia program coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists. Many of these state secret policies were implemented as a knee-jerk reaction to events such as WikiLeaks and Snowden’s NSA files, and rising uncertainty over terrorist threats. Yet the fast and hasty implementation of such laws across the globe means more room for institutional corruption and abuse.
“You can see tendency of more protection of government at the expense of journalists’ rights and the public’s rights,” Dietz said.
Reporters Without Borders, a watch-dog for freedom of information and promoter of investigative journalism internationally, in their World Press Freedom Index for 2014 dropped Japan to number 59 on its list, below countries like Serbia and Chile. This marks a precipitous fall; Japan was ranked as high as 22 in 2012. The United Nations and other international observers are becoming increasingly concerned about the direction of media freedom here.
In the land of the rising sun, investigative journalism and the public right to know has been quietly plunged into darkness. Even lighting a single candle in that darkness may have severe unforeseeable repercussions.
Lisa Du is a freelance journalist and a Master of International Affairs student at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. She has previously written for Newsday, Business Insider and The Charlotte Observer.
Jake Adelstein contributed to this article.