The Asahi Shimbun suspends veteran reporter over interview with Shinzo Abe
On April 6, The Asahi Shimbun suspended Kenji Minemura, a veteran reporter specializing in foreign diplomacy, for one month and removed him from the newspaper's editorial board. The reason for the action, as explained in an April 7 message from the newspaper, was an incident involving an interview that the former prime minister, Shinzo Abe, had given to the weekly magazine Shukan Diamond on March 9. Abe talked mainly about nuclear sharing, an arrangement that enables countries with nuclear weapons to "share" them with allies that do not possess any.
The day after the interview, Diamond's deputy editor, who conducted the interview, received a call on his mobile phone from Minemura, who said Abe was worried about some of the "contents" of the interview. Minemura asked him to send him the transcript so that he could check it for mistakes. The editor refused, and Minemura told him to contact Abe's office.
The article based on the interview was published March 22, at which point Diamond's editorial department had already filed a complaint with the Asahi regarding Minemura's call, claiming it was a breach of journalistic ethics and violated Diamond's "editorial rights”.
The Asahi carried out an investigation and judged that Minemura had, in fact, interfered in the editorial activities of another publication by aligning himself with the interests of a politician, thus forfeiting his neutrality as a reporter. The Asahi decided to punish Minemura, as well as his editor for not properly supervising him.
During the investigation, Minemura explained that Abe had told him he was worried about the interview. Since Minemura knew the deputy editor personally, he offered to check the transcript in his capacity as Abe's editorial advisor. When the interviewer refused Minemura's request, Minemura asked him to send it to Abe's office. As for Minemura's relationship with the former prime minister, he said they had met six years earlier through a mutual acquaintance, and while they often discussed matters related to national security, Minemura never used Abe for newsgathering purposes or as a subject of his reporting. When the Asahi sent questions on the matter to Abe's office, it replied that Abe was concerned that the questions he received seemed to contain misinterpretations of "facts," so he was afraid the resulting article would be based on false information. And since Abe was leaving for Malaysia the day after the interview, he asked Minemura to check the transcript for him.
Shukan Diamond's editor-in-chief, Keisuke Yamaguchi, told the Asahi that he believed Minemura had violated journalistic ethics. The Asahi's general manager, Kiyoshi Miyata, agreed, saying that Minemura had compromised his reportorial neutrality by putting pressure on Diamond's deputy editor, using the name of a prominent person as leverage. He apologized to Diamond and their readers, as well as to the Asahi's own readers.
Minemura explained his side of the matter on April 7 in a long post on the social media app Note. He said that his suspension from the newspaper would go into effect on April 13, but since he planned to leave the Asahi on April 20 – a decision the paper had known about for some time – the suspension would only last a week. He strongly objected to the punishment, saying that the in-house rule he had supposedly violated did not apply to this particular incident. According to this rule, reporters must not align themselves in any way with the subjects of their reporting. Although he admitted that he had often advised Abe on matters of national security, he had never used him as a source for a story or interviewed or profiled him for publication.
Minemura had been briefing Abe on some of the topics that might come up on his trip to Malaysia when the former prime minister brought up the interview. Minemura felt that some of the questions had misconstrued the meaning of nuclear sharing. Minemura recognised the interviewer’s name when Abe showed him his business card – he had been interviewed by the same person in January. In addition, it was possible that he might write for Diamond after leaving the Asahi. Since he knew that national security was not the interviewer's specialty, he felt that the resulting article could be misleading – hence the phone call. "As a journalist," he wrote, "it is my duty to prevent the publication of incorrect information."
When the interviewer refused to send him the transcript, Minemura pointed out Diamond's obligation to print the truth, and that he was calling on behalf of Abe and not as a reporter. Later, he learned that the interviewer had contacted Abe's office and subsequently corrected the misunderstandings before the article was published. Then, suddenly, Minemura was being investigated by his employer. He insisted that he was not a political reporter and that Abe had never paid him for his advice. He said he never took notes when discussing national security with Abe.
Throughout the blog post, Minemura stressed that his mission as a journalist was to ensure the truth was conveyed to the public. That was all he was trying to do when he called the interviewer, he explained. However, he also wrote that prior to calling Diamond, he had consulted with Abe's aide, who told him that Diamond had said that if Abe had any "revisions" to the interview, he should inform the deputy editor no later than March 13, which would be difficult due to Abe's trip to Malaysia. So Minemura took it upon himself to make the revisions.
Minemura maintained an aggrieved tone throughout the post. He mentioned that he had once been the Asahi's correspondent in China, and had been arrested and interrogated 25 times. However, the interrogation he received at the hands of his own newspaper was harsher, since they did not accept his explanation in good faith. They had already decided he should be punished. He went on to describe how it had been his dream to work for the Asahi, which he considers the pinnacle of Japanese journalism. While he still loved the newspaper, it had let him down multiple times in recent years by publishing stories based on incorrect information or unreliable sources. He wrote that if his sacrifice could help reveal the "sickness" at the heart of the newspaper, then so much the better. He also mentioned that on social media he was now being described as the "conscience of the Asahi," and implied he might sue the newspaper.
According to the media criticism website Litera, the person who called Minemura the conscience of the Asahi was Ko Arimoto, a noted Abe supporter who, like most right-leaning elements, demonizes the newspaper as irredeemably in thrall to the political left. Other media critics have portrayed Minemura as an Abe sycophant, with former Asahi reporter Hiroshi Samejima encouraging the paper to look closely at Minemura's work over the past six years to determine if it had betrayed any bias toward Abe and his views. Technically, Minemura's request to Diamond was not a violation of journalistic ethics, since he was not writing an article about Abe. But the fact that he was using his reporter's connections to help Abe was seen as improper. It was the interviewer's responsibility to interrogate Abe's views about nuclear sharing, and if he did so with an incorrect understanding of the subject, it wasn't Minemura's place to rewrite the piece to help Abe, a staunch advocate of nuclear sharing for Japan – a move the current prime minister, Fumio Kishida, has rejected. Regardless of Minemura's passion for the truth, his actions were those of a PR flack, not a journalist.
To put the matter in perspective, Shukan Diamond is nominally a business magazine, but it also covers the kind of popular subjects Japanese weeklies are famous for. It's very much a profit-oriented publication. As Minemura explained, Diamond had offered Abe the chance to edit his own remarks prior to publication, a practice that most journalists would find problematic but, as former Japan Times editor Sayuri Daimon recently pointed out during a discussion of the incident on the web program Democracy Times, is standard procedure in Japan, where subjects often expect to be granted final approval of an article as a condition of agreeing to be interviewed.
In a sense, the Japanese media's concerns over the Minemura scandal are misdirected. People in power are always going to try and put pressure on the press to get what they want. Such pressure is not "censorship," as Litera characterized it, or violating a publication's so-called editorial right. It's the way power operates. The problem is when the press gives in to that pressure.
Philip Brasor is a Tokyo-based writer who covers entertainment, the Japanese media, and money issues. He writes the Japan Media Watch column for The Number 1 Shimbun.