Monday, December 29, 2014

LDP vs. FCCJ: Behind the Barricades

Sunday, December 28, 2014
Reprinted from the FCCJ's Shimbun #1

In the lead up to the election, the LDP and Komeito shunned the Club.
Has Japan’s government suddenly turned shy of the foreign media?

by David McNeill
McNeill writes for the Independent, the Irish Times, the Economist and other publications and is a coordinator of the electronic journal JapanFocus.

In the well-trudged battlefield between politician and journalist it was a relatively minor skirmish but an important one nonetheless: Japan’s government effectively boycotted Asia’s oldest foreign correspondents’ club before the Dec. 14 general election. The Liberal Democrats (LDP) and coalition partners Komeito were the only two major parties not to send senior delegates to the FCCJ to explain their policies.

The boycott risked breaking a long tradition of pre-election pressers by the government. It also meant that foreign correspondents had only one limited venue – the Japan National Press Club – to directly question the cabinet. The office of the LDP’s No.2, Sadakazu Tanigaki, told the FCCJ that it was powerless to change the decision, which was made at the party level.

Off-the-record, officials said the decision was prompted by concerns that some of its members had “not been treated fairly” at recent events.

Why? The LDP’s public relations division cited “scheduling difficulties” when questioned by the FCCJ. “We are now in the middle of an election battle,” explained a spokesperson, apparently unaware that this is precisely why such pressers are considered newsworthy at all.

There was of course another reason, though the LDP was loath to discuss it publicly. Off-the-record, several officials said the decision was prompted by concerns among the party’s hierarchy that some of its members had “not been treated fairly” at recent events.

They noted a twitchy press conference by Eriko Yamatani, chairperson of the National Public Safety Commission. Yamatani visited the FCCJ in September to discuss North Korea’s kidnapping of Japanese citizens in her capacity as Minister in Charge of the Abduction Issue. Instead, she was grilled on her alleged connections to Japan’s hard right.

Knocked off message, Yamatani stumbled through the press conference seemingly intent on not putting distance between her office and perhaps Japan’s most toxic racist group, Zaitokukai. The event ended with Japan’s top cop being shouted down by a particularly enthusiastic freelance member of the press.

The presser (and its denouement) was relished by some as the sort of scrappy, rambunctious encounter that helped make the FCCJ’s reputation, such as it is. But where many saw spirited, open debate, others saw chaos. Allowing freelancers such leeway at the more scripted events run by the NPC is unheard of.

Yamatani’s encounter capped an uneasy two years for ties between the FCCJ and the government of Shinzo Abe, which has made itself far less available to the media than its predecessors. Abe himself has not been to the Club since he came with a group of LDP presidential candidates in September 2012.

That in itself is not especially noteworthy – in fact, the FCCJ has not hosted a sitting prime minister since Junichiro Koizumi in 2001. But neither Abe’s foreign nor defense ministers have made an appearance at all, and it took 19 months to get Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, who tried (but failed) to have the questions scripted beforehand.

The Abe government's full-frontal assault on the Asahi newspaper has -- perhaps permanently -- weakened Japan's liberal flagship.

Yamatani is one of 12 cabinet ministers to speak before the Club’s journalists in the two years since Abe took power in December 2012. That compares to 24 ministers under the three years of the previous Democratic (DPJ) government, which sent its foreign minister no fewer than three times.

The Abe government’s tepid relationship with the FCCJ hardly amounts to an organized snub, but it does point to a carefully parsed strategy of control and spin. The government has adopted a similar attitude to the domestic media, avoiding hostile outlets while favoring their conservative rivals, particularly theSankei newspaper.

Its full-frontal assault on the Asahi newspaper has – perhaps permanently – weakened Japan’s liberal flagship. Many commentators say NHK, the nation’s top broadcaster, has also been brought to heel by the Abe government, which has stuffed its board with fellow political travellers.

The more successful this strategy has become, the more the government’s confidence has grown: The LDP seemed heedless to charges that it was trying to suppress critical coverage when it sent “guidelines” to Japan’s big broadcasters in late November demanding “correct” coverage of the election. It was striking too that Abe avoided the one other place where he was sure to face serious interrogation – Okinawa.

In that context, avoiding the possibility of political landmines at the FCCJ seemed just common sense, and the Yamatani clash provided the pretext. As FCCJ President Lucy Birmingham says, “I feel it was an excuse. They thought ‘Why bother sending anyone to the Club?’ They might make a mistake.”

The spat has focused minds on both sides of the media divide. Birmingham says one result will be tightened rules at FCCJ press conferences to ensure legitimate journalists are given priority in asking questions. Why give the government an excuse not to come?

One reason why the FCCJ makes politicians nervous is that questions are entirely unscripted, and evasions can be challenged, as the Yamatani dustup showed.

Meanwhile, the bad publicity generated by the FCCJ boycott – and charges that the Abe cabinet is running shy of tough questions – has both angered the government and created signs of détente. Birmingham met a Cabinet Office official in December who pledged to “make efforts” to bring more ministers to the Club.

That doesn’t mean they’ll get an easy ride. One reason why the FCCJ makes politicians nervous is that questions are entirely unscripted, and evasions can be challenged, as the Yamatani dustup showed. That’s only natural, points out Shiro Yoneyama, a lecturer at Toyo University and a member of the FCCJ’s events committee. “The idea that journalists ask what they want to ask is a normal, global standard. The ability to answer questions in an unscripted press conference is effectively an international prerequisite for politicians.”

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