TOKYO • Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe yesterday sought to contain a political storm over calls by ruling party lawmakers to punish news organisations critical of his defence policy overhaul.
Mr Abe apologised in Parliament for comments made by politicians in his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), saying they "defy common sense". In response to questions from opposition lawmakers, he said it was important to safeguard press freedoms.
The ruckus began after LDP lawmaker Hideo Onishi said at a party gathering last week that companies should cut advertising with news outlets that publish "wrong" reports. Also at the meeting, best-selling novelist Naoki Hyakuta - a friend of Mr Abe's - said Okinawa's two main newspapers should be "crushed" for opposing the government over the relocation of a US military base. Mr Onishi repeated his media attack this week, despite a warning from party leadership.
"These are extremely regrettable statements that defy common sense and damage public trust," Mr Abe said yesterday. "It's important to be a country that guarantees newspapers' freedom of expression, and it's our responsibility to protect the media from any act that threatens their freedom."
Public support for Mr Abe is falling as he strives to pass unpopular legislation to expand the role of the military. The bout of party infighting comes as months of debate over the Bills risk diverting Mr Abe's attention from an economic programme designed to drag Japan out of more than a decade of deflation.
Mr Onishi's threat to punish government-unfriendly media outlets sparked an angry reaction from Japanese media.
The Japan Newspaper Publishers and Editors Association protested, saying it was a particular problem because ruling party lawmakers had made the comments.
The Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan also published a statement urging the government and ruling party to refrain from actions that could affect press freedom.
"They are hampering debate on the Bills," Finance Minister Taro Aso said of the critical lawmakers on Thursday, according to the Nikkei newspaper. "They probably meant to be cheerleaders, but they're holding us back."
While Mr Abe's ruling bloc boasts a two-thirds majority in the Lower House that would enable him to pass the security legislation without help from other parties, he has vowed to win the public's understanding. The coalition is also in talks to gain the backing of the small Japan Restoration Party.
Almost 59 per cent of respondents to a poll by the Sankei newspaper on Monday said they were opposed to passing the Bills. Support for Mr Abe's Cabinet fell to 46 per cent from 54 per cent a month ago.
Mr Abe has had a troubled relationship with the media.
Last September, he singled out the Asahi newspaper for criticism after it admitted a series of stories on Asian women trafficked to Japanese military brothels before and during World War II had been based on false accounts.