July 2022

The news industry in Japan operates under a number of limitations, but the annual press freedom index does not offer a reasonable measure of them

Artwork by Julio Shiiki

It has become a ritual. The France-based non-governmental organization Reporters Without Borders (RSF) publishes its annual ranking of the world’s national press environments, from best to worst. Japan-based journalists and scholars scroll down the list, down and down, until Japan’s name pops up. Then just about everyone starts scratching her or his head, wondering how Japan can be so low on the list and what happened over the last year to have made it worse. 

Japan’s ranking should be among the world’s best. The RSF criteria, while not tailor-made for Japan’s media environment, seem to favor elements of professional and everyday life where Japan excels. It mentioned “the effective possibility for journalists, as individuals and as groups, to select, produce and disseminate news and information in the public interest, independently from political, economic, legal and social interference, and without threats to their physical and mental safety.”

Starting from the last criteria, there is no appreciable violence against journalists in Japan. The RSF’s own barometer of violence against journalists lists no attacks on Japanese news media workers. One has to go back 34 years to the Osaka Asahi Shimbun incident to find a journalist being killed, and then possibly by accident. 

Japanese news crews and independent journalists operate without fear of official intimidation, at least not in terms jailings, the seizing of materials or equipment, or the shuttering of news organizations. A significant number of large, financially stable media companies provide the support for hundreds of competing major and minor news outlets, and a vast number of smaller ventures provide news and information services.

The constitution and the legal system defend the rights of journalists to collect information and disseminate it to the public. Listing journalism or news gathering as one’s occupation does not expose a person to denigration or ostracization. Indeed, being a correspondent of a major newspaper or broadcast channel marks one out as a member of an elite, stable and well-regarded profession.

So how is it possible that Japan ranks 71st in the world in the RSF press freedom rankings, below such volatile and low human security countries as Sierra Leone, Ecuador and Haiti? The concept that the media environments in those countries – or in Moldova, Niger and Kenya, which also rank above Japan – can be more free than the media environment in Japan, is absurd.

One reason for Japan’s low score may be in the RSF ranking’s relative underweighting of actual physical harm to journalists. Physical safety is one of five contextual indicators (the others being political context, legal framework, economic context and socio-cultural context) used to judge the level of freedom of a media environment. Though physical security – the minimal freedom without which all other freedoms are meaningless – is measured twice by the RSF, first in a quantitative tally of confirmed physical abuses and then in a contextual survey, working in a physically safe environment still only contributes around fifth of the final RSF score for a country. 

That being said, physical safety, a quality-of-life issue where Japan receives a top spot in most international rankings, is not great for news media workers in Japan, according to the RSF 2022 list. The RSF ranking of Japan’s physical safety is an indeed astonishing No. 45, behind Niger, Guyana and Jamaica.

One could investigate the other four RSF contextual indicators for bias, blatant or hidden, against Japan or East Asian countries or for sets of criteria irrelevant to a journalist working in Japan. Such an investigation would likely identify a number of factors contributing to Japan’s low overall ranking. However, these would be of marginal interest or importance, at best. Japan’s very low security ranking indicates that something is fundamentally wrong with the RSF methodology.

The answer seems to be that the Press Freedom Index does not have a weighting factor for the most obvious source of distortion of the RSF questionnaire survey results: the journalists and experts themselves. Nowhere in the set of questions the RSF disseminates to active journalists and press freedom experts is there a request for the respondents to provide some perspective. Nowhere are they asked to compare the situation in their country to the situations in other countries. Nowhere are they asked to provide a guess as to whether their country is above the median or below it in terms of any of the indicators. 

The reason why Japan’s RSF rankings have been so low (the RSF reformulated its Index in 2022 so the rankings from year to year are no longer comparable) is that the expectations of Japanese journalists are so high. The stature and power of the politicians they want to topple, the security from legal challenge they want to have when criticizing venal and corrupt corporate executives, the job guarantees and benefits they expect as full-time employees, are off the scale of what journalists in most countries can expect. Furthermore, Japanese journalists and news industry experts know this. They would be willing to admit they live in a privileged bubble – if the RSF survey bothered to ask them about it. The RSF does not, and its ranking, therefore, inflates every slight change for the worse a Japanese journalist or scholar perceives into a major degradation of the ability of a journalist to do her or his job in Japan.

There are threats to the ability of journalists in Japan to publish or broadcast information damaging to the powers that be. Japan’s press freedoms may be eroding. However, the objective level of threat or erosion is important for any international ranking. And objectivity is lacking in the way the RSF index measures Japan’s press freedom. 

Michael Cucek is assistant professor of Asian Studies at Temple University Japan