Japan news editors lash out at calls for press curbs, saying press freedom under threat

Mr Yoshikazu Shiohira (left), managing editor of Ryukyu Shimpo, speaking beside Okinawa Times managing editor Kazuhiko Taketomi at the Foreign Correspondents' Club in Tokyo on July 2, 2015.
Mr Yoshikazu Shiohira (left), managing editor of Ryukyu Shimpo, speaking beside Okinawa Times managing editor Kazuhiko Taketomi at the Foreign Correspondents' Club in Tokyo on July 2, 2015.PHOTO: AFP

TOKYO (AFP) - Two Japanese newspaper editors on Thursday warned that democracy and press freedom were under threat after a conservative lawmaker said media opposed to Tokyo's hawkish military policy should be punished.

Mr Hideo Onishi, a member of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), was reprimanded last week by the party after he and other LDP lawmakers called for restrictions on press that oppose the government's defence policy.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a robust nationalist, has pushed bills to loosen restrictions that have bound officially pacifist Japan's military to a narrowly defensive role for decades.

The Okinawa Times and the Ryukyu Shimpo, both based in the southern island chain, were targeted by Mr Onishi, who called on the business community to pull advertising over the papers' opposition to loosening restrictions on Japan's Self-Defense Forces.

The move has faced stiff opposition in Okinawa, which reluctantly hosts the majority of US military troops stationed in Japan.

"When you hear these things, you cannot help but worry that this country has stopped being a democracy and is steadily moving toward totalitarianism," Mr Yoshikazu Shiohira, managing editor of the Ryukyu Shimpo, told the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan.

Mr Kazuhiko Taketomi, managing editor at the Okinawa Times, added that the controversial remarks shone a light on a wider issue.

"The Okinawan newspapers were named in this episode, but it shows that there is a national problem at stake," he said.

"On top of the comment that our newspapers have to be crushed, I was extremely upset by the remark that public opinion in Okinawa was distorted and needed to be guided."

Japan's foreign press club said on Thursday that Mr Onishi's remarks show an "extremely disturbing pattern" in Mr Abe's government.

The Premier was forced to go on the defensive last week over the remarks, which Mr Onishi has since defended.

"Freedom of the press is the base of democracy," Mr Abe told Parliament. "Paying respect to that notion is a matter of course."

But some saw Mr Onishi's comments as the latest in a series of episodes that exposed the party's hostility to traditional press freedoms.

Late last year the LDP also drew criticism after writing to broadcast networks urging "fair" coverage ahead of a general election, in what was seen as an attempt to bring the media to heel.