In 1996, a Japanese citizens' taskforce on the media polled 800 residents in Gunma Prefecture on the present state of the press. The survey revealed that a mere 45% found that the information contained in newspapers was credible; 43% replied the same for network news. Just 4% said they trusted what the weekly tabloids published, while 3% felt that the contents of the tabloid photo-journals were true. Notes Kenichi Asano, who teaches journalism at Doshisha University in Kyoto: "Even as society enters an age dominated by information, the public is becoming increasingly distrustful of the sources."
The collapse of press credibility-up until the 1980s, similar surveys were reporting public confidence levels up in the 70-percentile range-can hardly be faulted, given the manifold woes that continue to cripple the Japanese news media, both mainstream and tabloid. "A large measure of the legitimacy journalists are granted lies with their role as a champion of the public cause," says Toshinobu Narusawa, editor-in-chief of the Quarter Keiji-Bengo, a criminal justice journal. "But in Japan, by harassing the very people they ought to be protecting, journalists have lost this legitimacy." As cited in this web site, the major flaws of the Japanese press are:
The Liaison Committee on Human Rights and Mass Media Conduct (JIMPOREN) was founded to address these issues and offer viable solutions to them. "It is not some monolithic entity whose members adorn dark hoods and carry a censor's pen," says Yukio Yamashita, an attorney who specializes in human rights violations by the media and a ten-year associate of JIMPOREN. Because there is no real organization to speak of, membership is fluid-at any given time, some 500 people across the nation work with the network, though some participate only in the discussion of a specific issue then leave.
All of them are volunteers; each is asked to donate an annual fee of some $30 which funds a small office and quarterly newsletter. "It's just a loosely affiliated cross section of society, people from different fields with equally diverse views on specific issues," says Asano, whose book, "The Crime of Reporting Crime," laid the foundation for JIMPOREN when it was first published in 1984.
JIMPOREN, moreover, is predicated on two central tenets: that every reform it proposes be fully consistent with the constitutional principle of the freedom of the press; and that, pursuant to these reforms, government involvement be kept at an absolute minimum at worst or eliminated at best. "Our principal task," explains Asano, "is to encourage the mass media itself to debate and implement reforms designed to enhance its primary mission-that is, to serve the public interest rather than the interests of the state."
One of the most alarming of those interests is the government's desire to increase regulatory powers over newsgathering organizations. Ever since the public furor over the bizarre Aum Shinrikyo cult--and the role one television network played in the death of an anti-Aum lawyer--politicians in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party in particular have renewed calls for stricter bureaucratic controls on the press. And the postal ministry, noting that the boundary between broadcasting and telecommunications will blur through such media as the Internet, is hoping to extend its supervision over the media industry as a whole. Says Hajime Kitamura, chairman of the Japan Federation of Press Workers' Unions and JIMPOREN member: "These moves must not be tolerated."
Yet most frightening of all is the mounting sense of frustration among ordinary citizens over an uncaring, irresponsible news media. In the 1996 survey conducted in Gunma, for instance, 72% of those polled said they would approve imposing more government controls on the press if such measures will prevent journalists from initiating further abuse. "This is why we must conduct a long overdue housecleaning of our industry now," says Kitamura, "when we still have the luxury to be able to do it ourselves."
For this reason, Kitamura's union formally adopted a code of press ethics in February 1997. Among the reforms the code advocates: the improvement of press club system and the institution of the so-called "anonymity principle" for suspects in crime reportage. The union also intends to establish a press complaints council to monitor and rectify media abuses by the end of 1997.