A call for action against a bill that could intimidate journalists from doing their jobs

Will the Secrets Protection Bill criminalize journalism?

by Michael Penn

By the very nature of the FCCJ, engagement with the society that surrounds us is a primary concern. Indeed, right there near the beginning of the Articles of Association is a declaration that our objective is “to defend the freedom of the press and free exchange of information and, in so doing, to maintain and increase friendly relations and sympathetic understanding between Japan and other countries.”

That being the case, we cannot be silent in the face of a government bill that could potentially criminalize investigative journalism in this country. The “Designated Secrets Bill” advanced by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, and reluctantly agreed to by the coalition New Komeito Party, is a threat clearly aimed at journalists as well as Japanese public officials.

The bill provides for prison terms of up to ten years, not only for government insiders who leak information regarded as “secret,” but also for those, including journalists, who encourage them to do so. And whereas existing laws mandate protection of military secrets alone, the new bill will expand such secrecy to every government ministry.

As for the crucial issue of oversight, the new bill will allow each ministry itself to decide what should be deemed a secret. The LDP specifically rejected calls from lawyers and other groups for third party panels to scrutinize how the bureaucrats would employ secrecy designations.

Among the groups that were alarmed by the earlier versions of this bill was the coalition New Komeito Party. While Abe’s ruling party was reluctant to provide any specific guarantees for “freedom of the press” or “the people’s right to know,” New Komeito insisted that this language be specifically mentioned in the bill. After an extended tug-of-war, the ruling party finally acceded to the idea and this language was included.

However, as the Japan Times rightly pointed out in a strong editorial on Sept. 25, these phrases “will be a mere declaration that will not have any effective power to guarantee those rights.” The editors went on to conclude that “the bill is clearly antidemocratic in nature.”

Just how antidemocratic? The more operative section of the bill describes the role of journalism as follows: “So long as it aims exclusively at serving the public interest, and does not violate the law or engage in inappropriate methods, it is a legitimate activity.”

Freedom of the press, according to this bill, is no longer a democratic right of an open society, but rather something for which the government “must show sufficient consideration.”

This is the grudging acknowledgement of our profession that long hours of negotiations between the LDP and New Komeito eventually produced. The Abe government didn’t want to include even this degree of protection for journalists.

Outside of the arch-conservative circles that concocted this bill (cheered on by some former U.S. government officials who see it as a step toward firming up the bilateral military alliance), there has already been a great deal of criticism.


The influential Japan Newspaper Publishers & Editors Association (Nihon Shinbun Kyokai) has issued a series of declarations expressing concern about the bill. Some opposition political parties argue that this bill would effectively deprive the people of their right to know about their own government’s activities. Even a normally non-political celebrity like model Norika Fujiwara has weighed in against the bill.

The Japanese public, too, has spoken up. During the brief public comment period on the bill allowed by the government, a flood of about 90,000 messages was received, with just under 80 percent of those messages expressing clear disapproval.

Working journalists in Japan can also reflect upon our experience with the Personal Information Protection Act of 2003. Individual privacy is, of course, an important right of democratic citizenship, but the expansive way in which that law was interpreted hindered the legitimate work of more than one investigative journalist in Japan.

If the Designated Secrets Bill becomes law, I wonder how many journalists and their editors will be deterred from publishing stories based on unofficial government sources fearing, whether fully justified or not, that they may spend 10 years in a Japanese prison for doing so? Beyond that, of course, is the matter of how public officials themselves might be so terrorized by the law that they would become almost entirely unwilling to respond to quiet media enquiries.

Naturally, the reality may prove to be considerably less grim than the picture drawn here. It may turn out that by the end of the legislative process the Designated Secrets Bill could contain many appropriate guarantees that ensure that legitimate media activities will not be disrupted and that the Japanese people’s right to know about their government’s behavior will not be seriously imperiled. Future applications of the law, should it be enacted, may be conducted with restraint.

However, the evidence to date suggests considerable cause for alarm.

For this reason, members of the Freedom of the Press Committee urge the FCCJ membership to engage in a positive fashion with this crucial issue. We cannot remain silent in the face of a bill that is clearly aimed at deterring journalists from carrying out our democratic responsibilities. Indeed, fighting for “freedom of the press and free exchange of information” is a central principle upon which our Club was established, and now is one of those occasions upon which we are required to fulfill the noble sentiments that an earlier generation laid down for us.

Michael Penn is president of the Shingetsu News Agency and chairman of the Freedom of the Press Committee