It is one of those distinct ironies perhaps found only in Japan that the news media of a democratic society, rather than crusading for the rights of citizens, often campaigns to infringe upon them. Nothing better illustrates this than the case of Yoshiyuki Kouno. On June 27, 1994, the people of Matsumoto, a sleepy city some 200 kilometers west of Tokyo, awoke to the stunning news that seven residents had died and 144 others were hospitalized from what was later determined to be sarin, a lethal nerve gas developed by the Nazis in World War II. Within days, unattributed police sources accused Kouno, a soft-spoken salesman who, along with his wife and children, was injured in the attack. He was the first to report the incident to the authorities.
Based on such tips, the Japanese press bivouacked en mass before his house and launched a barrage of negative articles in banner headlines. One newspaper claimed that Kouno had disclosed his "mistake" to a paramedic as he was being rushed to a hospital. A tabloid weekly went further, revealing the most intimate details of his family's life history; according to its "sources" Kouno had always been a "strange person." In no time, Kouno's quiet life in the countryside was shattered by an unrelenting stream of invective and harassment, almost of all of it anonymously.
For months, Kouno tried to plead his innocence, but was largely ignored. It was not until two years later, when public prosecutors were bringing charges against members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult, that the alleged assailants of the 1995 Tokyo subway sarin attack began to admit in court that they were also responsible for the Matsumoto incident. "I used to have unequivocal trust in what I read in the papers, and what was reported by the network news," Kouno recalls today. "I have since learned, however, that many of the reports they carry not just those that concerned myself, but about other people are utterly unfounded fabrications...The Japanese mass media, in my view, is worse than those who perpetrated the sarin attack because they at least have shown signs of guilt and remorse for their heinous act."
Given the intensely competitive environment in which newsgathering organizations around the world operate, it is arguable that such transgressions are bound to occur as it later did in the U.S., when a security guard, Richard Jewell, was thrust into a similar media-inspired hell as a suspect in the terrorist bombing that took place during the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. Yet ordinary citizens in other democracies have ways to fight back, legal or otherwise; they can publicly exonerate themselves without fear of media reprisals.
Not in Japan. Although the Japan Federation of Bar Associations has censured the police and media for their handling of the Matsumoto affair and the press has issued "apologies" for their overzealous coverage, the rebuke has given little impetus to much-needed reforms. There is no move, for instance, to hasten Japan's glacial court process in libel cases. Nor has there been a proliferation of in-house review schemes being instituted by the press. Instead, journalists in this country continue to compile abuse upon abuse and create victim after victim. Notes Kenichi Asano, journalism professor at Doshisha University in Kyoto and a former Kyodo News Service reporter: "The Japanese mass media has run amok."
Since 1984, the Liaison Committee on Human Rights and Mass Media Conduct (JIMPOREN), which Asano is a founding member, has sought to return the press to its original, overriding mission: to be a forum to air dissent, a tool to instigate social amelioration, and a watchdog to curb and prevent the excesses of political power. It seeks to achieve these ends by promoting journalistic guidelines and instituting an impartial, non-governmental commission in order for victims of media abuse to obtain proper redress. In short, JIMPOREN aspires to instill the element of accountability that hitherto has never existed in Japan, so that the news media becomes as principled as it is free.
This web site will evolve over time. As its starting point, we will focus on the print media. Over time, we intend to address other media forms, from broadcasting to multimedia and the Internet.