Ever since the current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took office in 2012 for the second time, Japan has been criticized for failing to guarantee fundamental human rights to its citizens and cracking down on press freedom. The international community, from the United Nations to Japan’s most important ally the United States, has pointed out that the Japanese government is undermining the freedom of the press. The report released last month by David Kaye, the UN’s special rapporteur for freedom of expression, is just another example.
On July 1st, a group of journalists and academics gathered at the symposium titled Contemporary Crises in the Asia-Pacific, jointly hosted by Sophia University Institute of Comparative Culture and Japan Focus, to discuss the state of journalism in Japan.
The event began with freelance journalist David McNeill showing how Japanese journalism continues to be undermined by the government.
Japan’s decline in freedom of press ranking (currently at 72, it was 11 in 2010) clearly shows that journalists in Japan face tough times gathering information and publishing news that are in the public interest but not the interest of the Japanese government or powerful corporations.
David McNeill pointed out, “Government officials have shied away from holding press conferences in the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan (FCCJ) to avoid being faced with tough questions. Instead, they prefer to have private meetings with the media whom they favor and speak everything off the record.”
Another panelist, Michael Penn of the Shingetsu News Agency, supported Kaye’s claim of the press club system undermining the media’s ability to gather information in the public interest. The press club offers exclusive access only to mainstream media journalists who get to attend high official press conferences. As a freelance journalist, Penn has been excluded from having access to attend press conferences, unable to gather information first hand. Penn claims that, “It is not the government who is excluding me from attending press conferences but the mainstream mass media that are in charge of running the club that keep telling me no.” He stated that although the Abe government is undoubtedly applying pressure to the media, it is the media and journalists themselves that are overreacting and imposing “self censorship”.
Nowadays, Penn claims, there are as much overt pressure from the government but the media itself feels the pressure, and by reading between the lines, they are restrict producing content that may have a chance to upset Abe. Penn comes to a conclusion that we need to realize the mainstream media are on the government side.
In order to free journalists from pressures coming from the government and the media itself, Yasuomi Sawa from Kyodo News (the Associated Press of Japan) brought up an idea of creating a network of journalists from all sections of the industry and providing an opportunity to interact with journalists from other media outfits. As Kaye correctly pointed out in his report, journalists in large media enterprises are organized by enterprise unions instead of craft or industrial unions. Because the journalists are organized in such a unique way, they tend to stay in their companies sometimes for their entire careers and are unable to form solidarity among themselves as professional journalists. Mr. Sawa also claims that for journalists to be compensated and recognized accordingly, there needs to be more awards given to good journalistic work.
In the event, all panel members agreed that journalists and academicians need to come up with ways to overcome the pressure coming from the government and within the media itself to tell the public what they have the right to know and the truth they should know.