Over the years, a consensus has gradually emerged within the Liaison Committee on Human Rights and Mass Media Conduct (JIMPOREN) in favor of two key proposals for the Japanese press: the formulation of a code of ethics for journalists and the creation of an independent commission to hear and act upon complaints against the press. One of the most vocal JIMPOREN advocates of both is Hajime Kitamura, who heads the Japan Federation of Press Workers' Unions. "I admit that in a perfect world, there would be no need for either as all journalists would uphold the highest professional principles," he says. "But our profession is far from perfect $B%` (Bas can be seen by a neverending series of abuses by the press."
His federation has recently systematized ethical guidelines for the news media, although industry-wide agreement that such code is necessary remains tenuous at best--even within the ranks of JIMPOREN. "I have yet to detect a sense of crisis among journalists that would spur its widespread implementation," notes fellow JIMPOREN member Yukio Yamashita, a lawyer who has represented numerous victims of media abuse since 1988. Kitamura concedes that the code will be truly effective only if every element of the press participates in its discussion, but argues the federation's code of ethics will take years before it is uniformly adopted.
The Japanese press workers union uses the British experience with its Press Council (succeeded by the Press Complaints Commission since 1991) as a guide. The codified system contains, among others, the following stipulations: 1) distinction of comment and conjecture from fact; 2) injunctions against the use of subterfuge or false pretenses; 3) restrictions on intrusions into grief and coverage of crimes involving minors; 4) publication encouraging discrimination based on race, sex and religion; 5) the barring of intimidation or harassment to obtain information or pictures; and 6) the maintenance of a professional distance between journalist and news source, especially those in government.
While these rules may appear to be fairly standard in today's democracies, the first and last stipulations alone would bring about a veritable revolution in the way the Japanese news media has operated. It would not only have a direct bearing on the way suspects in crime reporting are treated, for instance, it would put a virtual end to the endless parade of tabloid articles based on innuendo and outright fabrications.
Being such a controversial subject, guidelines on the protection of an individual's right to privacy will require further debate, although the principal yardstack to be employed will likely be whether one occupies public office or not. Kitamura also urges that the code contain injunctions prohibiting management from pressuring reporters to violate the standards it promotes or engaging in retaliatiory acts against those who do uphold the code. Says the union leader: "Had our predecessors had a similar code a half-century earlier and faithfully abided by it, then they may have been able to thwart Japanese militarists from starting a world war."
An oversight system of media activities will be vital to ensure proper adherence to the code. Its principal function will be to watch whether the press follows established ethical guidelines; to listen to complaints by citizens and investigate the validity of their claims; upon investigation, to issue an opinion, warning or recommendation to the parties involved; and, in the event that talks between victim and the press break down, to take the matter to court. There are numerous examples of similar systems in the U.S. and Europe, the oldest being the press ombudsman first adopted in Norway in 1912 and by Sweden in 1916; today, the Scandinavian model is implemented in some 30 countries around the world.
At the core of such scheme would be a non-partisan, volunteer group comprised of media and legal experts as well as ordinary citizens. As with the formulation of a press code, JIMPOREN associate Takehiro Uchida, an attorney who specializes in privacy issues, believes that participation by such institutions as the Japan Federation of Bar Associations (which recommended a similar scheme in 1987) and Japan Newspaper Publishers and Editors Associations would be critical to its success. And he echoes the JIMPOREN stance of opposing government involvement: "The government must not be given membership; the prohibition, moreover, should extend to retired bureaucrats as well." People who are eligible would probably be asked to serve for a one-year term, though the selection process would be random, in the same way jurists are chosen for jury duty in the U.S.
Uchida believes that the inclusion of various media and legal groups now in existence will aid in the implementation of any decision made by an independent commission. Kitamura, on the other hand, feels that the same results can be achieved even if they do not participate: "For the time being, once such system is set up, it would probably require an intermediary like our federation to work on an offending publication. I say this because we believe media companies are less likely to pay heed to any decision or criticism by a watchdog panel if it lacks leverage, especially since it would be legally non-binding. Our federation can provide that leverage."
Many media scholars who are not JIMPOREN associates suspect that an oversight system is unworkable. "I am not too optimistic," says Hiroshi Fujita, professor of Sophia University's school of journalism in Tokyo. "To oversee the mass media will require extensive funding. Who will pay for this? Ideally, the media industry itself should provide the money. But I can't see them doing so."
Instead, funding for a Japanese press complaints council to be launched by Japan Federation of Press Workers' Unions some time in 1997 will initially come from the union itself. Over time, however, the union plans to expand sponsorship to other legal and media associations. "The idea is to keep the press council free from any government interference," says Kenichi Asano, a Doshisha University journalism professor. In April 1997, moreover, public broadcaster NHK and four private television networks set up a similar system in an effort to reduce abuses in the broadcasting industry.
No one believes that such scheme can operate without its share of problems. Especially because it is not easy "in a democracy to strike the delicate balance between the free press that people cherish and the responsible press that people demand," as Kenneth Morgan, former director of the Press Council and Press Complaints Commission in the U.K., noted in a speech at a JIMPOREN seminar in June 1996. Still, he goes on to say, "If Japan were ever to launch such a body it wold be interesting to see the balance between complaints against the press and complaints by the press."