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Number 1 Shimbun

Is Japan becoming an enemy of press freedom?


No1-2017-09 Christophe-Deloire

Is Japan becoming an enemy of press freedom?

Reporters Without Borders press conference failed to supply the answers

On the day that Reporters Without Borders (RSF) founder Robert Menard visited the FCCJ 14 years ago, some wag amended the organization’s Wikipedia page to call it a “terrorist organization.” While there are probably not too many who would go that far, the organization is not universally loved.

And that’s true, to some extent, in Japan. When current RSF Secretary-General Christophe Deloire spoke at the Club on July 21, he faced some hostile questioners demanding to know just why RSF ranked Japan a lowly No. 72 on its World Press Freedom Index in 2016.
He was asked to provide a single example about his claims on why Japan was downgraded, but he didn’t seem to have an answer other than generalizations.

“The Index is not about the quality of the press but about press freedom,” Deloire explained. “Of course, Japan is a democracy with a huge level of journalism and I would like to say how we admire the powerful newspapers and media outlets in Japan, but there are more restrictions and pressures than in other countries.”

In response to strong demands from journalists attending the event that he specify exactly what issues had caused Japan to slip down the rankings, Deloire said that there were “problems” in Japan and seemed to lay part of the blame on Prime Minister Shinzo Abe while at the same time saying that Japan’s ranking on the Press Freedom Index was “not an evaluation of prime ministers.” One questioner pointed out that Japan’s ranking had gone down since Abe came to power, implying that the Index was politically biased.

Japan was 53rd in 2013, 61st in 2015 and is now ranked 72.

Some Japanese journalists, clearly angered by such a viewpoint, pointed out that no measures against journalists had been taken under the new anti-conspiracy law and suggested that Reporters Without Borders was basing its Index on theoretical possibilities rather than actual events.

While a number of Japanese journalists protested that Japan was one of the freest countries in the world when it came to the media, Deloire insisted that Japan needed to do more.

Deloire spent some time defending the openness and transparency of RSF’s evaluation process, noting that the Index was based on questionnaires filled out by journalists in the various countries and inviting those present at the FCCJ to contribute to the survey.

On the issue of press freedom, Deloire’s harshest words were directed at more “traditional” enemies of the press, his list including China, Russia, Syria, North Korea, Zimbabwe and Turkey.

And no press conference is complete without a comment on United States President Donald Trump: “President Trump sets a very bad example not only in his own country, but in the rest of the world, a world where so many leaders now imitate him, accusing journalists of fake news.”

“Without independent journalism – quality and independent journalism – it’s not only democracies that will suffer, but none of the key challenges for humanity will be solved,” Deloire concluded.

But his words on Japan's drastic fall in the Reporters Without Boarders press freedom ranking were not convincing to some non-Japanese journalists. An American journalist said that the reasons given for Japan's lowered ranking were the kisha club system, nationalists harassing journalists on social media, self-censorship and the state secrets law.

"The kisha club system existed when Japan was ranked at 11, so why is that a factor in ranking Japan at 72 now?" the journalist asked. "Nationalist groups harassing journalists on social media exists in almost every country and has for years in Japan well before it was ranked at 11. Again, why is that a factor now?"

The reporter added that the new information in the RFS report concerns the “State Secrets Law,” which has yet to be used against any single journalist in Japan, and suggested that the RFS based its ranking only on a possible way the law could be misused. Yet, Estonia, ranked at 12, has a law that allows for the arrest of journalists who refuse to reveal sources and has actually arrested an Italian journalist accused by a government official as being a propagandist for Russia.

“I'm unaware of any example of Japan arresting any journalist for such reasons,” he noted. “Spain, ranked at 29, actually has a gag law (The Citizen Security Protection Law) that allows for and has been used to fine and silence journalists – six so far. I also am not aware of any such law or similar action in Japan.”

Freedom House ranks Japan at 27, World Audit ranks Japan at 30, so it's curious why Japan's rating sank. After the event had concluded, some attendees asked for Japan’s results to be re-examined.

Fred Varcoe is a Chiba-based freelance journalist and reluctant historian


Published in: September 2017

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