Japanese media accuse govt of silencing criticism

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Senior Japanese journalists have denounced PM Shinzo Abe’s government for its recent clampdown on press freedom after the communications minister threatened to revoke their licenses for biased coverage last month.

Five Japanese journalists called a press conference to express their concerns over the government`s tightening grip on media. 

“In Japan today, rather than the media watching the authorities, the government watches the media,” said Shuntaro Torigoe, a former news anchor on Japanese TV Asahi, adding that the Abe government “is most nervously checking what the media say, because what’s said on television affects his support ratings.”

Last month, Japan’s minister of internal affairs and communications, Sanae Takaichi, repeatedly warned broadcasters that they must produce “politically neutral” news coverage in compliance with the country’s broadcast law if they didn`t want to lose their licenses.

Despite growing concerns that such remarks can have an adverse effect on the press freedom, Takaichi’s words were reiterated by Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, who supported the ministry’s stance, calling her comments “common sense.”

Following the remarks, Hiroko Kuniya, a prominent Japanese journalist, was ousted after 23 years of working as a popular primetime show host for public broadcaster NHK [Japan Broadcasting Corp]. After her last appearance on the show she commented on the departure by saying that "expressing things has gradually become difficult."

Among other victims of the government`s crusade on media were veteran anchors Ichiro Furutachi, 61 (TV Asahi Corp), who stepped down last December and Shigetada Kishii, 71 (Tokyo Broadcasting System). Kishii announced he would leave the channel on March 31. He believes the broadcasters are being pressured by the government to sack outspoken anchors to stem the flow of criticism.

Last year, Kishii publicly opposed the government’s security policy legislation, which stipulates that Japan’s armed forces will be able to engage in the military operations overseas in defense of an ally, including the US, under attack. Despite being labeled “war legislation” by the public, it was approved by Abe’s government, triggering mass protests.

Article 174 of Japan’s broadcast law allows the minister of internal affairs to suspend operations of any station that fails to comply with the neutrality clause. However, media professionals didn’t see the minister’s words as a simple reminder, but rather a dangerous attempt of suppressing the media.

“It sounds as if the government can suspend the activities of broadcasters or remove newscasters just because they criticized the government,” said Soichiro Okuno, an MP for the Democratic Party of Japan.

"It was a remark that could even topple the government in a Western democracy," wrote Akira Ikegami in a newspaper column last month.

READ MORE: Up to 30,000 flock to Japan parliament to protest US base relocation in Okinawa

Japan’s remilitarization has become the center topic of the national agenda under Abe’s government with many opposing the authorities’ efforts to broaden the mandate of Japan’s self-defense force and relocate a US military base on Okinawa. Nearly 30,000 people joined the mass rallies against the government’s plan to relocate the base, while hundreds of students marched through the streets of Tokyo protesting “war legislation” in February.