Freedom of the Press Awards Ceremony
The FCCJ honored its 2023 Freedom of the Press winners in a hybrid ceremony July 21st with participants accepting awards in person and online in locations as diverse as the United Kingdom, Okinawa, China, and Palestine. “Freedom of the press is under assault as never before. Not only in autocracies like China and Russia but also in democracies, including India, the United States and Japan,” outgoing president Peter Elstrom said in his opening remarks. Journalists in Japan are relatively free, he added. But the media is often contained through intense cultural pressures and libel laws very favorable to the plaintiffs. Winning the Freedom of the Press Japan Award were Megumi Inman and Mobeem Azhar, who produced the BBC documentary, ‘Predator’, on Japanese talent manager Johnny Kitagawa. The film pushed the long history of Kitagawa’s abuse of children back into the headlines, forcing the Japanese media to reflect on their own negligence in covering the story, allegedly because of their connections to Johnny & Associates. One of the few Japanese media publications that pursue the Johnny’s abuse scandal was another winner, the weekly magazine Shukan Bunshun. Daisuke Takahashi, representing the magazine, said the mainstream Japanese media’s decades of silence on the issue discouraged victims from coming forward and allowed the abuse to continue. Abuse by an organization close to powerful figures of a different kind occurred with the Unification Church, officially known as the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification. But the code of silence ended in July 2022 with the assassination of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. For analysis, many turned to freelance journalist Eito Suzuki, who had spent years, almost alone among Japanese journalists, investigating the church. For those efforts, he was awarded the Honorable Mention Japan prize. “The Japanese media did not monitor the relationship between the church and politicians. It was only with Abe’s shooting that they finally began disclosing these connections,” he said. For the Freedom of the Press Asia Award, the winner was the late Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh of Al Jazeera, who was shot and killed by what appeared to be sniper fire on May 11th, 2022. She was covering clashes between the Israeli army and protestors in the West Bank city of Jenin. Al Jazeera said she was wearing a helmet and vest clearly marked "press,” yet was shot "in cold blood" by a sniper. “Shireen was a household name everywhere in the Palestine territories and the Arab world. Everyone knew her,” said Walid Al-Omari, Al Jazeera Palestine Bureau Chief, in accepting the award on her behalf. The Honorable Mention Asia Award went to the FCCJ’s sister organization in China, the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China. Koichi Yonemura, a Japanese journalist from the Mainichi Shimbun who was an FCCC member until returning to Tokyo earlier this year, accepted the award on their behalf. “It’s a really sensitive time now. We can’t reveal the names of current FCCC board members or their affiliations,” Yonemura said. Finally, FCCJ’s Lifetime Achievement Award went to broadcast journalist veteran Hisayo Saika, known for her film on attempts by the Japanese right to politicize high-school education. “I’m really worried that this political intervention will change the shape of this country,” she said. The FCCJ's awards for Japan and overseas-based foreign journalists are an integral part of the club’s mission to foster freedom of the press.