UN envoy says Japanese media independence under threat

United Nations special rapporteur for freedom of expression David Kaye, before the start of his FCC press conference in Tokyo, on April 19, 2016.
United Nations special rapporteur for freedom of expression David Kaye, before the start of his FCC press conference in Tokyo, on April 19, 2016.PHOTO: AFP

TOKYO (AFP) - A UN special envoy urged the Japanese government on Tuesday (April 19) to protect media independence, which he warned is facing "serious threats."

The visit of David Kaye, the United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, came as concerns over media freedoms have grown.

The government and ruling Liberal Democratic Party have both drawn criticism for allegedly threatening the press.

Parliament in 2013 passed a law on protecting specially designated secrets, while the Cabinet minister responsible for regulating broadcasting told parliament this year the government can revoke licences if broadcasters fail to correct reporting deemed politically biased.

"There's a significant concern about the direction of independent media in Japan," Kaye told reporters after a week-long visit, saying he had heard from journalists of worries "about their ability to independently report on issues, particularly issues of sensitivity to the government".

In 2014 the conservative LDP wrote to broadcast networks urging "fair" coverage ahead of a general election, in what was seen as an attempt to intimidate media.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe supported the February comments by Internal Affairs Minister Sanae Takaichi on the broadcast law, which stipulates "politically fair" coverage. But Abe has insisted his government "cherishes freedom of speech".

Kaye said the law should be amended since "the government - any government - should not be in the position of determining what is fair."

"Broadcast media should not even theoretically be subject to regulation by government administration," he said, adding they should be overseen by an independent entity.

He said he was unable to meet Takaichi during his visit despite repeated requests.

The envoy also touched on the secrets protection law, saying he remains concerned even though the government assured him harsh penalties would not be applied to journalists.

"The law should be so amended to eliminate any chilling effect" on journalists, he wrote in a report on his preliminary observations.

The envoy also called on Japan to abolish its press club system, under which select media outlets have exclusive access to government ministries and police departments at the national and local levels.

Critics say the system allows authorities to spoon-feed information to a compliant press corps.

"The problem is that the system of journalism and the structure of media itself in Japan doesn't seem to afford journalists the ability to push back against" the government, Kaye said.

Japan ranked 61st out of 180 countries in the 2015 World Press Freedom Index announced by Reporters Without Borders, down from 59th in 2014 and 53th in 2013 and 2012.