The present LDP government has stepped back from the policies of its more accessible DPJ predecessor
The Abe administration’s retreat from transparencyby Carsten Germis
by Carsten Germis
Much is being written these days about the planned state secrets law that has been introduced to the Diet by the Shinzo Abe administration. Rarely has a bill faced so much public skepticism. And rightly so: the bill does not specify what would become a state secret, and the threat seems quite real that freedom of information and freedom of speech might be curtailed under its auspices.
The Japanese government bureaucracy has a long history of attempting to conceal unpleasant information. One wonders what might happen in the future when a journalist uses information he’s gathered about a new problem at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, or new data regarding the radioactive levels in food products. The vagueness of the bill’s wording allows the executive too much power to decide what is a secret and what is not.
Japanese bureaucrats do not need more power to hide unpleasant news. Indeed, what is badly needed in this country is quite the opposite: more public scrutiny of government policy.
Through my daily activities as a correspondent, my doubts regarding the intentions of the Abe government in dealing with foreign journalists have been growing. There is indeed much talk about transparency and openness, but the practice, at least in my experience, is quite the opposite and I do not believe that the problem relates merely to language skills.
Those who participate in press tours organized by the Foreign Press Center Japan know that there are basically two large groups of foreign correspondents in Japan: those from primarily non Asian countries who are directed to the English language channels on their headsets and those, mainly from China and Korea, who speak Japanese so fluently that they need no special assistance. Both groups have their problems with access to information under the Abe administration.
English, as the global language, makes it possible to obtain nearly every kind of information in Japan necessary for good reporting. Those looking for English speaking sources can find them even if it sometimes takes a little longer in Japan than in other countries. But since Abe came to power many of those sources seem to have become more careful in what they will reveal.
My experience in Japan began during the administration of the Democratic Party of Japan. All three administrations Hatoyama, Kan, Noda all tried to explain their policies, and their officials could be often heard saying things like, “We know we have to do more and become better.”
Foreign journalists were invited by Deputy Prime Minister Katsuya Okada, for example, to exchange views. There were weekly meetings in the Kantei with officials where current issues were discussed more or less openly. There was much criticism of the government’s stance in various matters, but the officials tried to make their positions understood to the correspondents.
JAPANESE BUREAUCRATS DO NOT NEED MORE POWER TO HIDE UNPLEASANT NEWS . . . WHAT IS BADLY NEEDED IS QUITE THE OPPOSITE
Such an effort is no longer visible under the Abe administration. Despite Abe’s use of Facebook, there is no evidence of openness. The old “cartels of the mind” have instead become stronger. Finance Minister Taro Aso, for example, has never tried to talk to foreign journalists or to provide a response to questions about the massive Japanese government debt. In fact, there is a long list of issues that foreign journalists want to hear Japanese government officials address: energy policy, the risks of Abenomics, constitutional revision, opportunities for the younger generation, the depopulation of the regions. But the willingness of the government representatives to talk with the foreign press has been almost zero.
In the four years I have been reporting here, I have put in approximately 30 to 40 interview requests to the government. For all that effort, I have received only one response, from former Minister of State for Administrative Reform Renho under the DPJ regime.
This closed shop mentality of the Japanese political elite does not really affect the freedom of reporting, because there are plenty of other sources from which to gather information and make credible reports for our foreign audience. But it reveals how little the Japanese government, especially the current Abe administration, understands that in a democracy policy must be explained to the public.
It does not seem funny any longer when colleagues tell me that the ruling Liberal Democratic Party has no one at all in its press affairs department who will speak English or provide information. It reflects their lack of understanding about how important it is in a globalized world to show openness and goodwill. But, indeed, this government is secretive not only with the foreign press, but also with its own citizens.
The DPJ government made a degree of effort to field critical questions and to engage in dialogue, but the current regime has clearly retreated from that standard. No doubt this is one reason why the outcry over the planned state secrets law has been so loud and determined.
Carsten Germis is the East Asia Correspondent for Frankfurter Allgemeine (Germany) and a member of the FCCJ Freedom of the Press Committee.