Japan set to pass secrets law despite public outcry

Masaharu Nakagawa (bottom left), chairman of the upper house special Diet committee, announces the approval of a controversial bill for a new secrecy law in the committee session at the Diet in Tokyo, on Dec 5, 2013 while lawmakers of opposition part
Masaharu Nakagawa (bottom left), chairman of the upper house special Diet committee, announces the approval of a controversial bill for a new secrecy law in the committee session at the Diet in Tokyo, on Dec 5, 2013 while lawmakers of opposition parties try to stop the approval. Japan's parliament appeared set on Thursday, Dec 5, 2013, to pass a controversial law protecting state secrets, despite widening criticism that it represents a power grab by an already-opaque government. -- PHOTO: AFP

TOKYO (AFP) - Japan's parliament appeared set on Thursday to pass a controversial law protecting state secrets, despite widening criticism that it represents a power grab by an already-opaque government.

Ruling party lawmakers pushed the bill through an upper house committee earlier in the day, provoking anger in the chamber, and forwarded it to the full house for final approval expected later Thursday.

The powerful lower house of parliament passed the bill last week, with conservative Prime Minister Shinzo Abe determined to enact it before the session closes on Friday.

As the committee approved the legislation, a handful of opposition lawmakers leapt to their feet and began haranguing committee executives in a rare show of animation.

Television footage showed one lawmaker banging his fist on the committee chairman's table and another repeatedly waving his order paper in the man's face.

The law allows government ministers to designate as a state secret information related to defence, diplomacy, counter-intelligence and counter-terrorism.

Abe has argued that the measure is necessary to plug a notoriously leaky government machine, which prevents chief ally the United States sharing intelligence.

But critics say the categories are so vague that almost anything could fit the definition.

They worry that information that is embarrassing to governing politicians or to their patrons could easily be hidden from public view.

They point to the way that Tokyo withheld news of the severity of the nuclear disaster at Fukushima in 2011, and say a state that already operates largely behind closed doors will become even more secretive.

That problem is exacerbated by a relatively weak institutional press.

The bill allows for jail terms of up to 10 years for those convicted of leaking state secrets, as well as for those who acquire secrets through illegal means - for example through trespass.

Anyone found guilty of encouraging someone to leak a state secret could face up to five years in jail, a provision that has drawn howls of protest from journalists, lawyers and academics.

The legislation does not provide for any independent oversight of the process.

Abe has said the government intends to set up panels to provide checks and balances in the process of defining a secret.

But opponents say nothing is written into the legislation and government-appointed panels are in any case unlikely to rule against their paymaster.

A string of influential groups have expressed opposition, including the Japan Federation of Bar Associations and more than 2,000 academics.

Clergy have also joined the debate, with senior figures saying the bill had echoes of Japan's tragic march towards war last century.

State snooping has come under the spotlight since ex-CIA employee and NSA contractor Edward Snowden fled to Hong Kong with a trove of classified documents that revealed the reach of the US intelligence machine.