The first annual FCCJ Freedom of the Press Awards celebrated people and organizations that continue to take on difficult and sensitive issues.
The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan recognized and applauded the men, women and media organizations that have been at the forefront of the fight for media freedom in Japan over the last year, with the inaugural FCCJ Freedom of the Press Awards.
Held at the Club on the evening of May 22 and organized by the Freedom of the Press Committee, the timing of the ceremony was appropriate, coming just days after Reporters Without Borders released its annual World Press Freedom Index. Japan slipped two places in the organization’s rankings to 61st place, putting it immediately below South Korea and lower in the rankings than Papua New Guinea, Mongolia, Romania and Burkina Faso.
In its report, the organization concluded, “Investigative journalism, public interest and the confidentiality of journalists’ sources are all being sacrificed by legislators bent on ensuring that their country’s image is spared embarrassing revelations.”
“This has to be the most important event that the Club stages this year simply because of the threats to the freedom of the press in Japan today,” said FCCJ President Lucy Birmingham.
“Japan remains one of the most important democracies in the world and the situation here is better than in most countries, but the recent Reporters Without Borders rankings should be seen as a warning of the significant threats that exist in our industry,” she said. The sweeping new state secrets law that was enacted by the government is “cause for serious concern,” Birmingham pointed out, along with the worsening trend for self-censorship among Japanese reporters that prevents the media here from taking on important issues like they used to in the past.
Part of the aim of the FCCJ’s annual awards is to encourage the media here to once again taken up sensitive issues that ask questions of the government, bureaucracy and big business, Birmingham added. “If reporters can see that their bravery and their work are being celebrated, then we hope this will encourage them to strive even harder for the truth.”
Six judges drawn from the newspaper, magazine, television news and filmmaking sectors were asked to weigh 50 names that were put forward for awards, finally selecting nine individuals and companies to receive the attractive engraved glass awards.
FACTA magazine, which followed up on the story of accounting chicanery at Olympus Corp. in 2011 with a series of probing stories this year, took the Investigative Journalism Award, along with the editorial team at the Asahi Shimbun responsible for “The Prometheus Trap” column that dissects goings-on in Japan’s nuclear industry.
The third award for investigative reporting went to Jason Clenfield of Bloomberg for his coverage of unfair working conditions for part-time employees.
Clenfield was unable to attend the awards ceremony but Peter Langan, bureau chief for Bloom-berg in Tokyo, accepted it on his behalf and described Clenfield who spent many months working on the coverage as “one of those really annoying reporters who refuse to give up on stories.”
The Lifetime Achievement Award went to Jon Mitchell, the British journalist who has extensively covered issues relating to U.S. military bases in Okinawa, including the presence of Agent Orange in the prefecture. “A lot of the mainstream Japanese and international media ignore what goes on in Okinawa, but I promise to do all that I can to continue to tell the truth about the good people of Okinawa who live there and the violations that continue to go on,” Mitchell said.
The three winners of the Friend of the Free Press Award included Shigeaki Koga, the former bureaucrat who has become a regular visitor to the FCCJ in recent months as a result of his no-punches-pulled criticism of the government and industry.
In an opinion article in the New York Times the previous day, Koga concluded that, “The [Shinzo] Abe administration’s treatment of journalists is worthy of an authoritarian state, not the liberal democracy Japan is supposed to be.”
Speaking after the awards ceremony, Koga said he was “very honored” to receive the award, adding that he found it encouraging because the rest of Japan’s media had queued up to criticize him after he spoke out. “If the FCCJ had not taken my case and given me chances to express my opinions, then there would probably have been no discussion in Japan at all of press freedom,” he said. “The fact that this issue is now being discussed is because foreign media covered it and then the Japanese media were forced to write about it.”
Koga said he has not been able to detect any significant changes in large media organizations’ approach to their duty of free and fair reporting, although he did confirm that individual journalists of many of those companies have been in touch with him to ask for advice on how they might be able to bring about improvements.
“I hope this award will provide encouragement to other journalists and, if that happens, then I will be even more gratified than I am now,” Koga added.
The penultimate award was for a journalist killed in the line of work, with Kenji Goto receiving the 2015 honor. Captured in Syria in February by fighters from the Islamic State, Goto was beheaded after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pledged financial support to countries in the Middle East struggling to combat the extremist group.
After a moment’s silence in memory of Goto requested by Jake Adelstein, who chairs the Freedom of the Press Committee, the final award was presented to the Tokyo Shimbun as Publication of the Year.
Accepting the award, Chief Editor Kengo Suganuma cited the truism that in war, the first victim is the truth and pointed out that Japan is presently “in a situation that is essentially a war on the truth. We are encouraging our reporters to go out and tell the truth, we are receiving a lot of support from our readers and that keeps us going, so I accept this award on behalf of all our readers and I promise that we will do our best to continue to tell the truth in the future,” he said.
Before the buffet meal, Adelstein proposed a toast to “freedom of the press and the truth and may both survive.”
Julian Ryall is the Japan correspondent for the Daily Telegraph.