Japan’s Press Freedoms Show Red Flags in UN Report

United Nations Special Rapporteur David Kaye found red flags while conducting an investigation into Japan’s press freedom in 2016. Though the democratic country contains the freedoms of press and expression in their constitution, Kaye uncovered traces of censorship in Japanese media.

According to the Guardian, Kaye accused Japan of “eroding media freedoms and stifling public debate of issues,” including the Fukushima meltdown and actions during World War II.

The nuclear incident at the Fukushima Daiichi plant occurred in March 2011 as a result of a large tsunami following the Great East Japan Earthquake. According to the World Nuclear Association, the tsunami damaged the cooling and power supplies of three main reactors. Six years later, the people of Japan, and their media, still suffer from the radioactive effects of the meltdown.

In 2014, the Asahi Shimbun retracted an article that claimed that 650 workers fled the Fukushima nuclear plant. The paper was pressured into the retraction by the administration of the prime minister, Shinzo Abe. Research later found that the information in the article was false. This, however, did not save the Asahi investigative team, which had gathered information critical to the government’s understanding of the nuclear crisis, from being dismissed.

Kaye’s other concerns include the erasure of “comfort women” in textbooks and Japanese laws able to hinder press freedoms. “Comfort women” refer to women, mostly from the Korean peninsula, who were forced to work in Japanese military brothels during WWII. In his report, Kaye observes that in 1997, these sex slaves were recognized in Japanese junior high textbooks. Beginning in 2012, fewer and fewer textbooks acknowledged this wartime practice.

Certain contemporary legislation was also mentioned in Kaye’s report. The secrecy law, for instance, took effect in 2014 and aims to prevent state secrets from leakers. The law’s downside is that anyone who instigates leaks, including journalists, could face five years in prison. According to Japan Times, state secrets which can result in imprisonment upon unauthorized release, are organized into four specific categories: “defense, diplomacy, prevention of specified harmful activities and prevention of terrorist activities.”

Despite these specifics, Kaye claims that certain subcategories are “overly broad” and can result in arbitrary use. Similarly, The Broadcast Act, specifically Article 4, allows the government to suspend broadcasting licenses if news stations are not considered to be “politically fair.”

“Japan has a very robust constitution guaranteeing freedom of speech,” said Steven Butler, Asia Program Coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists. What it doesn’t have is strong independence of the media. Essentially, the media is subject to indirect influence from the government that is very hard for them to resist.”

David Kaye has been the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression since 2014. Despite his credentials, several Japanese academics condemned Kaye for using “surprisingly strong words to describe the current situation of freedom of opinion and expression in Japan.”

These 46 professors formed the Academics’ Alliance for Correcting Groundless Criticisms of Japan (AACGCJ) and wrote a letter to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. The letter, posted on the Japan Forward website reads: “Professor Kaye’s alarmist language is sharply at odds with the actual situation in Japan, where freedom of expression is fully guaranteed by law and custom and fully enjoyed and practiced on a daily basis throughout all sectors of Japanese society.”

After the report was filed, Japan’s status on the Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index dropped significantly. In 2015, Japan was ranked 61 out of 180 countries. In 2016, the year of David Kaye’s report, Japan was ranked at 72 and remains so in 2017. However, the 2017 Freedom House report on press freedom ranks Japan as free, scoring 27 out of 100.

According to the Japan Times, the Japanese government “voiced regret over the report,” but vows to continue diplomatic dialogue with the United Nations in order to work towards a mutual understanding.  

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