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In Japan, aggressive bid to stifle media criticism is working


TOKYO » It was an unexpected act of protest that shook Japan’s carefully managed media world: Shigeaki Koga, a regular television commentator and fierce critic of the political establishment, abruptly departed from the scripted conversation during a live TV news program to announce that this would be his last day on the show because, as he put it, network executives had succumbed to political pressure for his removal.

"I have suffered intense bashing by the prime minister’s office," Koga told his visibly flabbergasted host late last month, saying he had been removed as commentator because of comments he had made critical of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Later in the program, Koga held up a sign saying "I am not Abe," a play on the slogan of solidarity for journalists slain in January at a French satirical newspaper.

The outburst created a public firestorm, and not only because of the spectacle of Koga, a dour-faced former elite government official, throwing away his career as a television commentator in front of millions of viewers. His angry show of defiance also focused national attention on the government’s increased strong-arming of the press to reduce critical coverage.

Many journalists and political experts say the Abe government is trying to engineer a fundamental shift in the balance of power between his administration and the media, using tactics to silence critical coverage that go beyond anything his predecessors have tried and that have frustrated many journalists. These have included more aggressive efforts to complain to the bosses of critical journalists and commentators like Koga, and more blatant retaliation against outlets that persist in faulting the administration. At the same time, Abe has tried to win over top media executives and noted journalists with private sushi lunches.

The prime minister, who arrived in the United States on Sunday for a weeklong visit, has also appointed a new chairman to the national public broadcaster, NHK, who has declared the network will not deviate too far from the government’s views. Members of the Abe government have openly hinted at revoking the broadcasting licenses of overly critical networks under a law that requires TV news reports not to intentionally twist facts.

Abe’s efforts have had a chilling effect on coverage at a time when he is pushing ahead with a conservative agenda to dismantle the nation’s postwar pacifist consensus and put forth more positive portrayals of Japan’s World War II-era behavior. Experts warn that muzzling the press makes it easier for the government to make big changes that might not enjoy broad popular support, such as rewriting the pacifist constitution, or even restarting the nation’s stalled nuclear industry.

"The Abe government is showing an obsession with the media that verges on paranoia," said Keigo Takeda, a former editor-in-chief at Newsweek Japan who is now a respected freelance journalist. "I have never seen this level of efforts to micromanage specific newspapers and TV programs."

While government officials deny they are trying to curtail free speech, many journalists, commentators and media experts say the government campaign has tempered coverage of the Abe government. They say even once feisty outlets like Hodo Station, the news program that had used Koga as a commentator, are now censoring their own coverage or removing critical voices to avoid drawing official ire.

Some criticism has also fallen on media outlets for rolling over without a fight, particularly since some of these tactics are considered routine in other democracies, like the United States. Many major news organizations have been accused of self-censorship, bringing renewed attention on what experts here say is a weak tradition among the Japanese press of serving as a watchdog on power.

The governing party is acting "like a bully who says ‘Hey, I don’t like what you said, so meet me behind the gym,’" said Yukio Edano, a senior opposition lawmaker. "And the ones who meekly obey also lack self-respect as press organizations."

This is a point conceded by many Japanese journalists, who say they have no choice but to get along with a prime minister who appears set to remain in power for several years in the absence of credible opposition. Other journalists say they do not want to suffer the fate of The Asahi Shimbun, a liberal newspaper that came under fierce criticism last autumn and seemed to capitulate by cutting back on critical, investigative coverage of sensitive issues like the 2011 Fukushima nuclear accident.

Scholars describe a mood of fear spreading beyond media into the broader society, including in education where the Abe government is pressing textbook publishers to adhere more closely to the official line on topics like the 1937 Nanjing massacre and the use of comfort women in wartime military brothels.

"These unprecedented attacks on The Asahi and other media are creating a closed conformity in which the whole society is becoming afraid to say something different," said Tatsuro Hanada, a professor of media studies at Waseda University in Tokyo. "Abe is adeptly using this for his own political ends."

Koga’s accusations offer a rare glimpse into how a formerly hard-hitting news program appeared to tone down its coverage.

While never a favorite of the governing Liberal Democratic Party, Hodo Station felt the pressure rise after a show in late January in which Koga criticized Abe’s handling of a hostage crisis in Syria that resulted in the deaths of the two Japanese captives. Employees of the network that airs Hodo Station, TV Asahi, who asked not to be identified since they were still working there, and Koga said that before the program was even over, the network’s political reporters were getting phone calls and emails from political secretaries in the prime minister’s office.

They said the tactic seemed to succeed in turning network reporters against Hodo Station, which has a separate production staff. The reporters and their editors demanded that the program show them its scripts beforehand to ensure coverage was "balanced," something Hodo Station’s producer resisted. The government stepped up the pressure against the show again in February, when a top official in the Abe government, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, used an off-record briefing with journalists to speak scathingly of the "completely mistaken" comments about the hostage incident by a "television commentator."

According to a transcript of the Feb. 24 briefing, Suga warned that the network may have broken the law by airing the comments. "If it were me, I’d tell them that they violated the broadcast law," Suga said, laughing, according to the transcript.

Koga and others said the transcript made its way to TV Asahi’s chairman, Hiroshi Hayakawa. "This was a warning to TV Asahi to get rid of me," Koga said. "Suga knew this memo would be seen by all major news outlets, and be shown to Chairman Hayakawa."

Koga said that is exactly what happened. In February, after 3 1/2 years of appearing at least once a month as a commentator on Hodo Station, he found out that he would no longer be back on the show. At about the same time, another critical commentator and a producer who had refused to give in to the political pressure were also removed from the show.

Koga said that led to his outburst on March 27, his final appearance as commentator.

The network refused interview requests. Its chairman, Hayakawa, denied in a news conference that political pressure had played a role in what he called a routine decision to change the lineup of commentators. Suga has told reporters that Koga’s charges of political pressure were "baseless."

Still, the governing party is keeping up the pressure, summoning TV Asahi executives two weeks ago to explain how Koga was allowed to make his accusations on live television. The party explained the summons by saying that those accusations may themselves have violated the broadcast law.

"Some don’t like his method, but Mr. Koga did draw public attention to the Abe government’s pressure on the media," said Takashi Uesugi, a media critic and one-time researcher at The New York Times who runs an independent online news program. "This was an inconvenient truth for both the government and the self-censoring journalists."

Martin Fackler, New York Times

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