Sunday, March 19, 2023

Abe Government's War on the Press

 Biased Pressure on Broadcasters

By Takuya Nishimura, Chief Editorial Writer, The Hokkaido Shimbun

The views expressed by the author are his own and are not associated with The Hokkaido Shimbun

March 12, 2023

It should be pointed out that the former administration led by Shinzo Abe did not fully understand what democracy was. Last week, a lawmaker from the main opposition party revealed a document that described attempts by Abe's colleagues to pressure broadcasters that they thought were biased against the administration. While the minister who was in charge of the issue argued that the document was fabricated, the ministry admitted it as authentic. It is highly strange that a minister denies the truthfulness of a ministry’s document. But the point is not about whether it was true or not, but whether the Abe administration tried to oppress the freedom of expression.

A member of the House of Councillors, Hiroyuki Konishi, exposed a document of the Ministry for Internal Affairs and Communications that indicated that the Abe administration tried to change the interpretation of the Broadcasting Act on political impartiality. Article 4 of the law requires every broadcaster to be politically impartial in producing the programs and the government had been interpreting the provision as applied to the broadcasting station's programs as a whole. According to the revealed document, an adviser to the prime minister, Yosuke Isozaki, in a meeting with the officials of the ministry in 2014, questioned that interpretation and argued that there were obviously inappropriate cases among actual broadcasting programs.

The meetings on the interpretation were consecutively held and some secretaries of the Prime Minister's Office often joined. In one meeting in 2015, a secretary warned Isozaki that if the government, which had the authority to stop the broadcasting wave, would assess political impartiality by only one program, it might be an oppression of freedom of speech. Not only Isozaki, however, then Prime Minister Abe was willing to review the interpretation to make things straight, arguing he would be right to say no to some extreme programs. Among the programs discussed in the series of meetings, there were Sunday Morning and News 23 of TBS or Hodo Station of TV Asahi.

"Is there any unbiased program in TV Asahi, anyway?" was the words of Sanae Takaichi, Minister for Internal Affairs and Communities at the time, in a meeting. She was willing to answer the questions on revising the interpretation in Diet discussion, expecting positive support from Prime Minister Abe. After the documents including those exchanges were revealed, Takaichi, the current Minister in charge of Economic Security, immediately denied the description and dismissed her conversation as fabricated. 

Asked whether she would resign as the minister and lawmaker if the documents were found not to be fabricated, she said "Very well." But, a few days later, the documents were acknowledged as made in the ministry. There appeared a great contradiction that the head of the ministry denied the credibility of documents made by the ministry officials, because every policy delivered by the minister would be based on such documents.

Takaichi still insists that the description in the documents was incorrect and refused to resign. It is possible that she hoped the ministry would protect her by admitting their fabrication, as the Ministry of Finance did for Abe by admitting manipulation of internal documents on the Moritomo scandal in 2018. Upon refusing to resignation, she apologized for the incorrectness of the documents under her leadership.

What we can see in the documents is an amazing fact that Abe's colleagues believed that they could, with the approval of Abe, pressure the broadcasters they didn't like. Abe had been a politician who had a tendency of intolerance of criticisms against him and showed little hesitation in blaming news organizations skeptical of him. That kind of approach reminds of the oppression of the Hong Kong media by the Xi Jinping administration of China or the strong grip on the media by Vladimir Putin in Russia. What is biased is such a kind of politics. It might be inappropriate for Japan to advise some foreign countries to share common values of freedom of speech, rule of law and human rights.

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