TOKYO >> First, there was the abrupt resignation of a president accused by governing party politicians of allowing an overly liberal tone to news coverage. Then, his newly appointed successor immediately drew public ire when he seemed to proclaim that he would loyally toe the line of the current conservative government.
Still more public criticism came Thursday, when a longtime commentator on economic affairs angrily announced that he had resigned after being told not to criticize nuclear power ahead of a crucial election.
These are hard times for NHK, Japan’s influential public broadcaster, which faces an increasing number of accusations that the pro-nuclear, right-wing government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is interfering in its work. NHK’s new president, Katsuto Momii, a former vice president at a trading company, seemed to confirm those fears in his inaugural news conference last weekend, when he stated, “We cannot say left when the government says right.”
On Friday, Momii was summoned by a parliamentary committee to explain this and other comments that seemed to run against the stated mission of the embattled broadcaster, which is funded by fees collected from everyone who owns a television set, to report the news without fear or favor. While NHK is nominally independent from government, its 12-member governing board is appointed by Parliament, which also approves its budget.
The bluntness of the questioning in Parliament reflected the deep suspicion shared by many in the opposition that Abe’s governing Liberal Democratic Party is stocking NHK’s governing board with political appointees who will stifle criticism of his conservative government’s agenda, whether it be restarting idled nuclear power plants or playing down Japan’s wartime atrocities.
“What I am worried about is that NHK will become loyalist media, become the public relations department of the government,” an opposition lawmaker, Kazuhiro Haraguchi, said in unusually harsh criticism as Momii sat fidgeting. NHK is “part of the infrastructure that forms the basis of our democracy.”
“I am sorry if I caused any misunderstanding,” Momii replied in testimony broadcast by one of NHK’s own TV channels, which carries a live feed of proceedings in Parliament. “It is my intention to protect freedom of speech and unbiased reporting.”
The public grilling, coming just a week after Momii took office, is a rare public humiliation for the head of a powerful institution whose studios and broadcast towers are a prominent fixture in every major Japanese city, and whose influential evening news program can still set the tone for Japan’s group of smaller, privately run TV networks.
Experts say the newest controversy hurts NHK’s image at a time when one in four Japanese households refuse to pay their monthly viewing fees of $13 to $22 because of scandals, including one in 2004 when an NHK producer used company funds to take a mistress to Hawaii and other exotic destinations. The broadcaster has also faced widespread public distrust for coverage of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear accident that was later criticized for complying with government efforts to cover up the extent of radiation releases.
The accusations of political interference have become a new headache for the Abe government, which has seen its high approval ratings slide after passage in December of a secrecy law that many Japanese journalists saw as imposing draconian punishments on government officials who speak with reporters. This has led many liberals to accuse Abe of trying to muzzle the press as he pushes through a right-wing agenda that most Japanese voters may not fully support.
“This is gross political interference,” said Yasushi Kawasaki, a former NHK political reporter who teaches journalism at Sugiyama Jogakuen University near Nagoya, Japan. “The Abe government has stocked NHK’s board of governors with friendly faces in order to neuter its coverage.”
Kawasaki pointed out that the Abe government had appointed four new members to the governing board in the last year, including a prominent right-wing novelist. The top government spokesman, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, has denied that the appointments were politically motivated, but said the prime minister had chosen people whom he knows and trusts.
That governing board in turn selected Momii after his predecessor, Masayuki Matsumoto, suddenly announced in December that he would step down at the end of his three-year term, instead of seeking a new term as expected. Other major news media at the time said he had been driven out by criticism from the Abe administration that he had let NHK become too critical in its coverage of nuclear energy and U.S. bases in Okinawa, both of which are supported by many conservatives.
In his first news conference last Saturday, Momii stunned many Japanese journalists when he said that NHK should refrain from criticizing the secrecy law, as well as Abe’s visit in December to a Tokyo war shrine. He also repeated a common denial by nationalists here that Japan’s wartime military had forced Korean and other women to work in brothels, a view also expressed in the past by Abe. Such views have outraged South Korea, which says tens of thousands of its women were forced to work as “comfort women” during the war.
Momii later retracted the comfort woman statement, although he refused to do the same for his other comments, even under intense questioning in Parliament.
This is not the first time that NHK has been criticized for caving into pressure from Abe. In 2005, a producer said Abe and other Liberal Democratic lawmakers had forced the broadcaster to cut a scene from a 2001 program that showed a mock trial in which the wartime emperor Hirohito was found guilty of permitting the military to use comfort women. NHK officials have denied that political pressure was behind the deleted scene.
The broadcaster has also been accused of blunting its criticism of atomic power and the Fukushima disaster because of pressure from the powerful nuclear industry and its allies in the governing party. Jun Hori, a popular NHK television news announcer, quit last year after he was questioned by superiors for more than six hours about a documentary he had made describing nuclear accidents in the United States.
On Thursday, Toru Nakakita, an economics professor, said he had severed ties with an NHK radio show on which he had appeared regularly for 20 years after it told him not to say anything critical of nuclear power to avoid possibly swaying a coming election for Tokyo governor. An NHK spokesman said the demand had been made to ensure balanced coverage during the election.
“NHK is scared of being criticized as anti-nuclear,” said Hori, who now works as a freelance journalist. “NHK has become a place where it is hard to speak out against authority. This is unhealthy for democracy.”