Japan’s shackled press weakens the world


Copyright The Financial Times
April 6, 2005 Wednesday
Long before the recent wave of media scandals raised questions about media ethics in western countries, imperial Japan pioneered the model of consolidated ownership and cozy government-media ties that shaped the dissemination of information. In the 1930s, more than 3,000 independent Japanese media outlets were closed, leaving just six – staunchly pro-war – companies.
This pre-war media system remains largely unreformed in Japan today. Perhaps the worst aspect is the system of so-called “press clubs” – roughly 1,300 press pools housed inside the government and corporate entities they cover. Press-club reporters work closely with public relations officers, regurgitating press releases and quoting official sources, often without cross-checking. They enjoy exclusive access to official sources and usually free rent and telephones, meals, entertainment, even small gifts, all regularly provided by sources. In exchange, they “police” themselves. Any journalist straying from the approved line is punished by the club.
The large-circulation weekly news magazines, shukanshi, are outside the clubs looking in. But their journalistic standards are even lower, somewhere between supermarket tabloids and soft pornography. Few of Japan’s 20,000 reporters have a university training in journalism and most get just two weeks of corporate “training”. Journalists typically view their job as company work, with their obligation to the employer. The result is one of the least independent news media in the democratic world. For example NHK, Japan’s and the world’s largest broadcast company, was recently exposed for censoring a programme about “comfort women”, Japan’s second world war sex slaves. Two days before the programme was broadcast, top brass of Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party expressed displeasure. According to a producer-turned-whistleblower, NHK scrambled to cut the survivors’ wrenching testimony, splicing in a preposterous academic describing the victims as prostitutes. Media denials of war atrocities, the use of “comfort women”, the Nanjing massacre, and sometimes even the Holocaust are politically useful because key LDP founders were in the imperial government. The party inherited its mantle and has almost continuously held power for five decades. Media whitewashing of the war legacy thus helps bolster LDP legitimacy, while friendly reporting on current issues furthers LDP policy objectives. These include a permanent seat on the UN Security Council and rewriting Japan’s pacifist constitution.
Abroad, the propaganda tactics can backfire. In China, the Japanese media’s nationalistic tone and denials of war crimes helped incite massive protests, with 22m Chinese petitioning against Japan’s Security Council bid and mobs attacking Japanese-owned businesses. At home, the tactics are effective at chilling public debate and defusing opposition. If a broad segment of Japanese oppose the deployment of Japanese soldiers in Iraq, the overwhelming majority of media outlets reiterate dubious official assertions that the military, known as the Self-Defense Force, is constitutionally deployed in a “non-combat zone”. Amid last year’s escalating violence in Iraq, however, mainstream Japanese outlets withdrew their reporters and now simply take news from official military sources. If public sympathy for Japanese taken hostage in Iraq risks embarrassing the government, the media keep repeating the official line condemning them as unpatriotic for being there against the government’s will.
In short, Japan’s fourth estate has a giant pro-government sign on the lawn. Its lack of independence weakens democracy in the world’s second largest economy and the impunity with which Japan’s government manipulates it undermines press freedom globally. Indeed, the west’s recent reporting scandals suggest its media are drifting more towards the Japanese model than the other way round. While the European Union protests against Japan’s press club system and Asian countries decry Japan’s nationalist propaganda and historical amnesia, the Bush administration lauds Japan as a success story of democratic nation building. But Japanese propagandizing will continue and spread unless the US demonstrates its commitment to promoting democracy, and press freedom applies not just in Lebanon, Iraq or Russia but everywhere else, including Japan.
The writers are co-authors of A Public Betrayed: An Inside Look at Japanese Media Atrocities and their Warnings to the West (Regnery); Mr Watanabe is professor of media ethics at Doshisha University in Kyoto; Mr Gamble is a US-based writer and researcher

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