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Mission Statement


V. Road to Reform

C. The Need for Systemic Reforms

Ken Takeuchi was a reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, the second largest daily in Japan, for nearly three decades before he decided to switch careers. After successfully running for the mayor's office of Kamakura City in 1993, he shocked the mainstream news media by shutting down the municipal press club--the much-criticized symbol of state control over Japanese newsgathering organizations--and open a media center instead. "[Press] club reporters tend to deal with issues only in a framework provided by (authorities)," Takeuchi was quoted in the May 22, 1996 issue of the Japan Times. "The media and public authorities should return to a non-collusive relationship."

The Kamakura experiment was not unopposed: members of the closed press club boycotted the media center when it opened in April 1996, although they decided to join later. Nor is it perfect: journalists representing religious or political organs remained barred. Yet the abolition of the institution (there are some 1,000 press clubs in operation today) ranks high among the structural changes necessary to transform the Japanese press into a force truly capable of watching over the state and curbing the excesses of political power. Not all of the possible reforms to achieve this end which will be presented in this section reflect the consensual view of the Liaison Committee on Human Rights and Mass Media Conduct (JIMPOREN)--or, for that matter, lie within the realm of its concern. But the synergistic effect of the resolution of the following issues will undoubtedly enhance the media's overall ability to truly serve the interests of the public.

As the press club system is set up today, mainstream newspapers and television networks are not only dependent on the government for so much of the news, they are exposed to constant exploitation by official news sources. This bonding invariably invites opportunities for collusion and self-censorship in spite of the fact that the "appropriate relationship between the press of a free democratic country and its politicians is likely to be pretty distant: a wary, skeptical, even abrasive one on both sides, rather than a close, cosy or adulatory one," noted Kenneth Morgan, former director of the British Press Council and Press Complaints Commission, in a speech before JIMPOREN in June 1996.

While Kazue Suzuki, Asahi Evening News feature editor and a JIMPOREN expert on press clubs, believes closure of the clubs would sow considerable confusion among its members and clearly distinguish competent reporters from incompetent ones, she sees no reason why they cannot be abolished. "Press clubs, afterall, do not have sole title to government access," she says. "You can see that by the number of journalists who are doing quite well without being members." And by removing the threat of a news source blackout (a form of government retaliation against those members who do not cooperate), reporters would not only be free for a closer scrutiny of public officials and institutions, but help divert them from their current fixation on the lives of ordinary citizens.

A key tool to expedite this end would be passage of a national freedom of information law as found in the U.S. A number of municipalities and prefectures have enacted such ordinances, but intense opposition by members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and the central bureaucracy-who cite, ironically, the right to privacy as one reason-prevent its passing on the national level. Yet, should "a law guaranteeing access to government information be enacted to both journalist and general public can obtain the same information available to press club members today," Suzuki says, "then the system will naturally self-destruct."

Media accountability is also a major issue that calls for dramatic improvement. The courts, for one, could play a prominent role in this direction. Although litigation has helped curb many of the abuses once perpetrated by the mainstream newspapers and can discourage the press from launching additional barrages of negative reportage, the fines awarded by judges are too miniscule-they average less than $10,000 per settlement-to deter the larger media firms, especially tabloid publishers such as Bungeishunju Ltd. and Shinchosha Ltd.. Notes JIMPOREN member Yukio Yamashita, a lawyer specializing in media abuse cases: "A six-figure settlement would be ideal. That sum would entice more high-powered attorneys to take on such cases; right now, with settlements being so low, the plaintiff's lawyer virtually has to volunteer his time."

Yet Yamashita is wary of the million-dollar lawsuits so prevalent in the U.S. "It could drive a lot of the smaller, more conscientious publishers--if they do happen to commit, say, a factual error--into bankruptcy," he says. "You wouldn't want that." Aside from paltry fines, another legal flaw is the inordinate length of time Japanese courts take to reach a verdict-a libel case usually taking up to three years. The situation is further exascerbated by the shortage of lawyers: just 700 are allowed to pass their national bar examinations per year (though the figure will rise to 1,000 in 1999).

Other bottlenecks pertain to the media itself. While there are a dearth of universities offering journalism majors, increasing the number is probably a futile gesture: "The major media firms prefer not to hire journalism graduates because they come will all kinds of annoying baggage-things like a background in journalistic ethics," says Masanori Yamaguchi, a veteran reporter for the Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan's largest daily. To rectify this bias while concurrently "decorporatizing" reporters who have been hammered into placing corporate interests above all else, Japan Federation of Press Workers' Unions chairman Hajime Kitamura thinks a general union open to all journalists, corporate and freelance, is vital. "Reporters hired by the blue-chip media eventually devolve into mere employees," he says. "A general union can help journalists transcend corporate parochialism and protect them when they resist managerial warnings not to buck the system."

In the meantime, most JIMPOREN associates agree that the first step in reforming the press should begin with the police beat. "The worst possible place to put a budding reporter is on this beat," says Yamaguchi. "Covering the police requires all the instincts of a veteran journalist; you must be on constant guard against manipulation and deception, to know when a suspect's civil rights are being violated, and so on-attributes that require years to hone." Instead, first-year reporters are "thrown into the lion's den, and in so doing, they are co-opted and begin to feel like they are a part of the force," he sighs. "No wonder they cannot empathize with the suspect's point of view."

Concurrently, since so many cases of media abuse arise when a suspect is identified by name in a crime story, notes Doshisha University journalism professor Kenichi Asano, editors should enforce the so-called "anonymity principle" unless there is an overriding social need. If implemented, the rule would almost singlehandedly transform the media's present proclivity to treat suspects as if their guilt were already established-and, in the process, spare hundreds of innocent lives from intense grief and social ostracism.

While the establishment of a code of journalistic ethics and a press ombudsman scheme for the general public would help, those are still distant prospects at best. In the meantime, "since the coverage of crime is the source of so much abuse," concludes Asano, "that is where JIMPOREN should begin."