Press freedom in Japan
Secrecy and lies
A tough new law on secrecy has suddenly become controversial
Oct 19th 2013 | TOKYO |From the print edition
Full of leaks
“A PARADISE for spies” is how a former agent of the Soviet KGB described Japan in the 1980s. Little has changed, though now the politicians and bureaucrats more often pass information to journalists than to foreign agents. But this autumn Shinzo Abe, the prime minister, is trying to stop the leaks by passing a forceful new secrecy law, even as he seeks to pass economic reforms as part of his programme of measures known as “Abenomics”. He also wants to legislate for a new national security council in order to centralise intelligence information and speed decisions on national security. New rules on secrecy are needed for it to function well, says the government. The media, fearful for press freedom, are crying foul.
Japan is much less punitive than other countries towards leakers. Civil servants who breach rules on confidentiality are currently liable to just one year in prison. Only officials of Japan’s Self Defence Forces face the possibility of stricter punishment: five years for leaking defence secrets, or ten if they are gleaned from Japan’s security pact with America.
The gap widened after the events of September 11th 2001, when security elsewhere became tighter. This year America used its Espionage Act of 1917 to hand down a 35-year prison sentence to Bradley Manning, a former soldier, for passing information to the WikiLeaks website. Previous Japanese governments have tried to clamp down, but memories of the feared wartime secrecy regime have caused moves to tighten the law to be blocked.
Japan’s allies, especially America, complain that information entrusted to it is too often leaked, says Nobutaka Machimura, a former foreign minister who heads the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s task-force on the law. If passed, the bill would apply to all civil servants and to high-ranking politicians. “Special secrets” would be designated in three new fields of diplomacy, counter-espionage and counter-terrorism (in addition to defence). The penalty for leaks—also applied to those who encourage breaches, such as journalists—would be up to ten years in prison. Further details are scant, but the bill reportedly lacks important provisions, including independent review of what can be called secret, and a clear limit on the period of confidentiality.
That means the government could keep far more information under the veil than is necessary, says Kiyoshi Gojima, deputy managing director of Sankei Shimbun, a newspaper. The public would have less access to information than before, to some degree reversing a campaign in recent years for greater government transparency.
In the field of diplomacy, for instance, the contents and outcome of summit meetings could be kept firmly secret. Last month, Norika Fujiwara, a television celebrity, warned that information relating to radiation from the meltdown at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant in 2011 could be ruled off limits by the new law. An adviser to Mr Abe denied this would happen.
Another risk is that public officials will stop talking to journalists entirely, says Mr Gojima. That would be a big shift from the current system of privileged press clubs, in which reporters have special channels to sources in the government and bureaucracy who pass on inside information. The current system needs reform, says Koichi Nakano of Sophia University, but there is no need to jump to the other extreme.
The final bill is expected to state the public’s right to know, and to include a commitment to press freedom. The LDP’s coalition partner, New Komeito, will insist on such amendments. But public opinion seems to be firmly against the law, so Mr Abe may face resistance, even though his government has a majority in both houses of parliament. One unwelcome outcome would be if the bill diverts government attention from economic reforms.