Ruling puts NHK independence in doubt


TOKYO -- Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party has paved the way for the government to order national broadcaster NHK to provide more coverage about North Korea's abduction of Japanese nationals.

The LDP's communications and broadcasting panel has concluded that the government has the right to influence the output of Japan Broadcasting Corp., although the decision quickly raised questions about NHK's independence.

"The government should respect the freedom of the media and freedom of expression," said Yukio Hatoyama, secretary general of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan. "If intervention is permitted, it means the government will be able to interfere with program content."

Even the staunchly pro-government Yomiuri Shimbun ran an opinion piece on Friday headlined "NHK's autonomy in question."

Tokyo is becoming increasingly hard-line in its dealings with North Korea after Kim Jong Il's regime detonated a nuclear device in October. Pyongyang also reportedly manufactures and smuggles drugs into Japan and has admitted to abducting 13 Japanese to train its own spies. Tokyo believes the true figure may be more than 100.

"The government can make NHK broadcast state-ordered programs," Yoshihide Suga, the minister of internal affairs and communications, told reporters. "The new cabinet has been installed and the abduction has become one of the top priorities of this government."

Tokyo apparently wants NHK to transmit shortwave radio programs that it hopes other Japanese abductees will hear. Their relatives -- who are exerting pressure on the government and have the support and sympathy of the majority of the Japanese public --will be asked to send messages to missing family members.

The government has not previously tried to influence the content of NHK programming for fear of contravening Article 1 of the Broadcast Law, which protects the corporation's neutrality and freedom of expression.

The corporation has not commented specifically about the LDP panel's decision, which paves the way for the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry to issue the order to NHK as early as Wednesday, but officials say they have always treated the abduction story appropriately.

"Although the law allows the government to 'order' NHK to broadcast, NHK has always conducted its own independent programming, editing and broadcasting," Eijiro Ishimura, deputy executive director of the General Broadcasting Administration, said in a statement. "It is designated that NHK should conduct international broadcasting on 'current affairs,' 'important national policies' and 'government views on international issues' as obligatory items. The abduction issue is no exception and we have confidence in what we have been reporting regarding this issue."
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