Protecting Sources & Risking Lives: The Ethical Dilemmas of Japanese Journalism
“1. Write the truth by any means possible. 2. Protect your sources. 3. If you can’t write the story, without protecting your sources, find new or different sources– or drop the story. There’s always another news story, people only have one life. That’s Japanese Journalism Ethics 101″–senior national news editor, 1999
Recently, Japan’s largest newspaper, the Yomiuri Shinbun, forced a national news reporter to resign after he mistakenly sent an email which revealed the identity of his police contact. The police officer had been an informant on links between the Fukuoka Police and the yakuza. The detective who was outed later tried to kill himself. Here are the details:
“At the Fukuoka bureau of the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper in July, a reporter resigned after leaking confidential information related to an assistant inspector who had been arrested for accepting bribes from organized crime members.
Shukan Bunshun (Aug. 30) reveals that a police superintendent who served as the reporter’s source attempted suicide the following month.
On July 20, reporter Masahiro Goto, 33, disclosed the identities of his sources after he mistakenly sent an email containing his reporting to multiple news organizations while he was attempting to contact his editorial colleagues.” –from Tokyo Reporter
The reporter made a careless mistake. The cost was great for himself and for the courageous officer that was speaking to him. You might ask yourself, but why would the whistle-blowing cop try to commit suicide?
The answer isn’t as simple as fearing reprisals from his fellow policemen or great shame; the answer is because he may possibly face criminal charges for talking to the reporter. Because in Japan, if you are a public servant, and this includes police officers, leaking information to the press can be prosecuted as a crime. It’s a violation of the Civil Servants Act (国家公務員法100条また109条). The law states that a public servant may not release secrets gained during the course of his work, and he/she can be sentenced to up to a year in jail and or a 500,000 yen fine if they violate the law. (国家公務員に対し、「職務上知ることのできた秘… … 守秘義務に背いた者には、1年以下の懲役または50万円以下の罰金が科されます) What is considered “secret” is pretty much whatever the government wants to consider “secret”. The Japanese courts and prosecution have some latitude in disputing the classification.
If a public official talks to reporters or releases information without permission they can be lose their jobs and be prosecuted for violations of the civil servants laws. In other words, if I named my all my sources, I could cost them their jobs and get them thrown into jail. I’m not willing to do that. Source confidentiality is an even more sensitive issue when involving articles about the yakuza. Revealing a source could cost them their job, their finger, or maybe even their life.
Even whistleblowers are subject to possible prosecution. Here is one example. Fortunately it did not end in actual criminal prosecution but this is one of the few cases reported in English.
In the case above a Coast Guard officer who leaked footage of a Chinese “fishing vessel” attacking or ramming into a Japanese Coast boat, was under a criminal investigation for a violation of the laws mentioned above. The officer released the footage out of good conscience, because he felt the Japanese public wasn’t getting the true story of what happened because the Japanese government was kowtowing to China. He even reportedly sent a copy of the video to CNN on a memory stick, but CNN didn’t examine the data or choose to ignore it.
For releasing the video, the Coast Guard officer was put under criminal investigation. It was only because of massive public support and sympathy that the case was dropped. Technically, it’s illegal to share any secrets or information that a public servant has access to in the course of this work. This law applies to police officers and all government employees. Violators of the law, those who have talked to the press on the record, or off the record, and then been exposed—have been fired, prosecuted or both.
Thus in Japan, many news reports read, “The Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department said…” “Sources close to the investigation revealed…” The number of cases where a police officer makes a comment on the record, in his own name ,are extremely rare. Essentially, in less an individual receives approval at the highest levels, to make a comment on the record is risky. Comments made on background can be career destroyers if the source is found out, and may also subject them to criminal charges.
Even when a source is willing to go on the record, as in the case of a whistleblower, an experienced reporter knows that they may be subjecting their source to vicious reprisals. This is not unique to Japan. This happened to my own father, who refused to keep quiet about what appear to have been a nurse who was a serial killer at the Veteran’s hospital where he worked. It was a shock to me that the world worked like this but sometimes good deeds really are punished. I’d like to see that courage and the pursuit for justice are rewarded and that the people with a conscience in the world don’t suffer. Of course, I know that’s idealistic.
Whenever possible, I try to name sources and put as much factual data into a story as I can but I’m always aware that the costs for the source are almost always greater than my own. It’s not a crime to name a public official as your source; the person named may become a criminal under Japanese law. That doesn’t seem like justice to me nor does it seem like ethical journalism.
Journalists aren’t saints and I’ve known a number of them who’ve betrayed their sources for “a really big story.” Sometimes they’ve claimed that the public right to know outweighs the safety and welfare of the individual. I’ve known other journalists who bitterly complain when scooped and demand from the officials to know who leaked information to their rival reporter. Usually the journalists that do these things are border-line sociopaths. I don’t know what the US standard is on this but in Japan, if you’re any kind of a responsible journalist you don’t burn your sources nor do you ask others to do the same.
I’ve been writing about the Japanese underworld since 1993. I’m very well aware of what can happen to someone who writes the wrong thing or someone who has their cover blown. Sometimes they get hurt, sometimes they get fired, sometimes they suffer punitive damages, sometimes they go to jail, sometimes they “commit suicide”, and sometimes they just vanish.
That’s another high cost of being an investigative journalist in Japan–if the bad guys don’t like the message, they attack the messenger. If they can’t attack the messenger, they attack the people he loves. In January of 2006, the son of an investigative reporter, Atsushi Mizoguchi, was stabbed by members of the yakuza. The court found two of the yakuza involved guilty and sentenced them to hard labor for assault, noting, ” (they) attempted to violate the right to free speech and expression through the cowardly means of attacking a family member. It had a major impact on society.” Mr. Mizoguchi had written articles critical of their boss. Mr. Mizoguchi himself was literally stabbed in the back in 1990 after writing a book about the Yamaguchi-gumi, Japan’s largest crime group, that was not well received. The assailants were never caught.
If you’re going to write about crime or corporate malfeasance in Japan, you always have to consider the risks to your sources, your friends, and yourself. And then you do the best you can. You try to do as much good as you can and as little harm as possible. As I get older, I often seem to find that when I weigh the value of writing a “scoop” versus the damage that it might do to an innocent person, and the relevance to public welfare, that I often drop the story. As my mentor said many years ago, there are many, many stories; people only have one life.
I don’t know why other people continue to be investigative journalists in Japan. It’s an increasingly difficult and painful occupation. You stand to lose much personally and gain little. The case of Minoru Tanaka is a sad reminder of how the court hammer is increasingly used to bludgeon journalists into silence. Write the truth, and be sued into oblivion. That’s the reality independent journalists here are facing.
Why do I continue? I do it because I love the work and because I like Japan. This is my home. And I continue to be an investigative journalist because I believe that the role of journalism–at its best–is to uncover the truth that people should know, to see that justice is done when the authorities fail to carry it out, to protect the weak from the strong, and by doing this, make our society a better place to live.