Japan Cabinet ministers approve controversial secrecy Bill

Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga speaking at a Cabinet meeting on September 10, 2013 -- FILE PHOTO: REUTERS
Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga speaking at a Cabinet meeting on September 10, 2013 -- FILE PHOTO: REUTERS

TOKYO (AFP) - Japan's Cabinet on Friday approved a secrecy Bill that would stiffen punishments for people who give away state secrets, ignoring claims it will curtail freedom of the press.

The legislation is aimed at plugging Japan's notoriously leaky bureaucracy after years of complaints from chief ally the United States, which has been reluctant to pool information.

It comes amid a worldwide debate over government secrecy in the wake of the Edward Snowden affair, which on Thursday saw the US Ambassador to Germany summoned after claims Washington was spying on Chancellor Angela Merkel.

New laws are "a pressing issue because sharing intelligence with other countries is only possible on the premise that secrets will be kept", chief government spokesman Yoshihide Suga told a press conference.

Public servants who give away state secrets could be jailed for up to 10 years. The present maximum is one.

Information related to defence, diplomacy, counter-intelligence and counter-terrorism will all be classified as a state secret, the bill says.

Legislation will be submitted to Parliament later on Friday, Mr Suga said, adding the government wanted the new confidentiality law to be passed by lawmakers "as soon as possible".

Mr Suga said the change was important "for the effective functioning" of a Japanese version of the US National Security Council that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has said he wants to establish to integrate information linked to diplomacy and security.

But critics say if enacted, the law will impinge on the transparency of an already opaque government and will be open to abuse. They also fear the law could see reporters jailed for doing their job.

The Japan Federation of Bar Associations (JFBA), which has led a campaign against the bill, said it was "deplorable" it had been approved by ministers "without sufficient safeguards on the public's rights to know".

Among other complaints, the JFBA has demanded a clear definition of "state secrets", with a list that is open to inspection by legislators, but the Bill "does not fundamentally address these problems", JFBA's president Kenji Yamagishi said.

The Bill says the process of designating state secrets needs to reflect the "opinions of knowledgeable persons," and requires the government to "have significant consideration of the freedom of press as far as it serves the public's right to know".

Reporters' rights to conduct interviews and other news gathering activities are "rightful services as long as they hold purposes that serve public good and are not recognised as violating laws or using extremely unjust means", it says.

Mr Yamagishi said the provisions are too abstract and could easily lead to arbitrary rule-making, possibly to serve vested interests, undermining parliament's role as a necessary check on the power of the executive.

"There is no independent function to check each process of designating a state secret," he said.

News organisations will be dependent on court rulings over whether their activities are legitimate under the legislation, he said. "This alone can intimidate reporters."

Mr Suga on Friday brushed off those concerns, saying "usual news gathering activities by news organisations" are not the intended target of the Bill.

Official intelligence-gathering has come under the spotlight since Snowden fled to Hong Kong with a trove of what he says are documents that reveal the extent of US official snooping.

Weeks of newspaper stories based on the documents have proved an embarrassment to President Barack Obama, both at home and abroad.

Britain's Guardian newspaper on Thursday reported US spooks had listened in on the telephone calls of 35 world leaders.

Washington was forced into a slightly awkward denial that it spies on Dr Merkel, with the White House refusing to say if it had done so in the past.

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