Japan State Secrets Bill Raises Press Freedom Concerns

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Media in Tokyo are concerned about freedom of reporting under new laws.

Vague wording in the legislation currently before the Japanese parliament has local and foreign media worried about the effect it will have on investigative journalism in the country.

TOKYO – A controversial bill strengthening the penalties for disclosing information deemed to be of importance to Japanese national security is causing growing concerns over whether it will be used to thwart investigative journalism or prevent whistleblowers from coming forward.

The Japanese parliament began examining the proposed Designated Secrets Bill on Nov. 7, following approval by the cabinet of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has said the bill is necessary for Japan to cooperate more closely on security with allies such as the United States by preventing leaks of sensitive information.

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Critics of the proposed legislation have pointed out that some of the vague language in the bill, such as a reference to "other types of information" that will be classified as protected, and making it illegal for journalists to use "inappropriate methods," would give the government wide-ranging power in controlling the media.

Under the proposed legislation, disclosing information relating to national defense could result in ten years' imprisonment.

On Monday, eight prominent TV newscasters and journalists, including anchors from major networks including TBS (Tokyo Broadcasting Systems), TV Asahi and TV Tokyo, held a press conference to announce their opposition to the new law.

The liberal-leaning Asahi Shimbun, the second biggest newspaper in the world by circulation, ran an editorial on Tuesday suggesting that the new legislation could have been used to control information about the nuclear disaster at the Fukushima power plant in 2011. The government was criticized after the nuclear accident for being slow to release data on radiation.  

“The government has a history of covering up vital information and postponing crucial decisions. Things will only become worse if the proposed legislation is enacted,” read an Asahi op-ed.

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The Mainichi Shimbun, another liberal mass-circulation newspaper, has also run editorials calling for the bill to be scrapped, writing, “the bill proposes that administrative organs be given unlimited authority to designate as special secrets information identified as relating to foreign diplomacy, espionage and terrorism at their own discretion. Penalties extend not only to those who leak information, but also to those who acquire it -- an outrageous stipulation.”

The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan also issued a statement Monday condemning the bill: “In particular, we are alarmed by the text of the bill, as well as associated statements made by some ruling party lawmakers relating to the potential targeting of journalists for prosecution and imprisonment. It is at the very heart of investigative journalism in open societies to uncover secrets and to inform the people about the activities of government. Such journalism is not a crime, but rather a crucial part of the checks-and-balances that go hand-in-hand with democracy.”

Twitter: @GavinJBlair