Defiance, not deference
The Japanese media are commonly accused of showing deference to authority. One often-cited reason is the existence of the press (kisha) club system, which is often criticised by foreign correspondents.
Most of the information that major newspapers, TV stations and government bodies described as coming from official sources are ridiculed as akin to that of the propaganda announcements made by the imperial authorities before the second world war. Most of the information is of benefit only to the party that releases it. It is considered acceptable, meanwhile, simply to keep the flow of information going day and night.
Major Japanese media organisations that belong to the press clubs are engaged in a constant battle to keep out magazine writers and freelance and foreign journalists in an attempt to defend their vested interests at all costs. As a result they kowtow to bureaucrats, politicians and big business, which, in return, provide them not only with information but also various favors, such as so-called exclusives.
One recent case has cast light on the Japanese media’s deferential relationship with authority. After the Yomiuri Shimbun reported that the Japanese arm of a US health food company had been penalized for allegedly hiding profits, the parent company filed a lawsuit against the US government, saying information given to Japanese tax authorities by US officials had been leaked to the media.
The US side also asked the Tokyo district court to cross-examine the Yomiuri journalist responsible as a witness. Although the journalist refused to testify, citing the importance of not revealing the identity of his source, the Tokyo court ruled that his silence could be construed as an attempt to conceal criminal activity and that allowing him to remain silent might indeed encourage further illegal activities by government officials who, as public servants, are covered by strict confidentiality laws.
The recent ruling ignores the public’s right to access information, freedom of speech and the principle of confidentiality in dealings between journalists and their sources. The Tokyo district court’s failure to recognise the confidentiality of information sources is totally unacceptable.
The major media organisations, however, should reflect on the fact that it is their routine abandonment of their role as a check on authority — and in particular their reluctance to pursue investigative journalism — that has enabled even the judicial system to insult them in this way.
Magazines, which are excluded from the press clubs, already face restrictions, including a recently introduced law protecting privacy that effectively prevents them from
reporting scandals involving politicians and bureaucrats.
Staff at the Yomiuri Shimbun might be asking themselves why their newspaper has been targeted by the courts, since the newspaper is usually so accommodating towards the authorities. They should realise, though, that freedom of speech is not something to be granted by authority, but rather secured through sustained struggle.