New NHK President's Comments Raise Concerns About Political Independence

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Katsuto Momii, seen by some observers as a political ally of Japan's hawkish prime minister, makes controversial statements about NHK's coverage of territorial disputes with Asian neighbors, its imperial past and an unpopular state secrets law.

TOKYO – The new president of NHK, Katsuto Momii, has raised concerns about bias at the public broadcaster with controversial comments about Japan's wartime past, the current territorial disputes with China and Korea, and the designated secrets bill.     

"What the government is saying is, 'Right,' we can't be saying is 'Left.'" said Momii, speaking Saturday at his first press conference since taking over as president of NHK.

NHK should clearly express Japan's position on the territorial disputes with China and South Korea in its programming aimed at overseas audiences, said Momii, "International broadcasting has that kind of nuance to it. At the very least, we shouldn’t be very far removed from the Japanese government position."

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On the highly controversial issue of the women who staffed brothels for the Imperial Japanese Army before and during World War Two, Momii said that all countries had such systems during wartime. He went on to say that such practices are wrong according to, “current morality,” and that he believes the issue is “complicated” by South Korea accusing Japan of being the only country to have forced women into brothels.

Momii's comments are bound to provoke an angry reaction from South Korea and China, where the issue remains a furiously divisive one in relations with Japan. Often referred to by the euphemistic ‘comfort women’, many historians believe that some of those from Korea and China who worked in the brothels were kidnapped and forced into sexual slavery.   

Back in 2001, when current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was chief cabinet secretary, he pressured NHK to remove a segment of a program featuring a mock trial that found Emperor Hirohito responsible for wartime sexual slavery enforced by the imperial army.

Abe admitted in a 2005 statement that he had elements of the program changed, "I found out that the contents were clearly biased, and told NHK that it should broadcast from a fair and neutral viewpoint, as it is expected to."

Political interference in the operations of NHK is illegal under Japan's Broadcast Law. 

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The new state secrets law, passed last November, was opposed by almost all of the Japanese media and much of the public, but Momii dismissed concerns about it in questions from reporters.

"Now it has been passed, there is no point in questioning it," said Momii. "It would be a problem if the government's purpose was what the public is worried about. But I doubt that is the purpose."

The bill imposes tough penalties on leaking or obtaining information deemed to be state secrets, though vague wording has many in the media worried about the effect it many have on reporting on government activities.

When Momii's appointment was announced in December, commentators in Japan suggested that he, along with other new NHK governors, were nationalist political allies of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and might influence the broadcaster to be supportive of the government. Few of those commentators however, would have expected such an apparently strident endorsement of the premier's agenda from an NHK president at his first press conference.

Twitter: @GavinJBlair