(REUTERS) - Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government is planning a state secrets act that critics say could curtail public access to information on a wide range of issues, including tensions with China and the Fukushima nuclear crisis.
The new law would dramatically expand the definition of official secrets and journalists convicted under it could be jailed for up to five years.
Japan's harsh state secrecy regime before and during World War Two has long made such legislation taboo, but the new law looks certain to be enacted since Mr Abe's Liberal Democratic Party-led bloc has a comfortable majority in both houses of parliament and the opposition has been in disarray since he came to power last December.
Critics see parallels between the new law and Mr Abe's drive to revise Japan's United States (US)-drafted, post-war constitution to stress citizen's duties over civil rights, part of a conservative agenda that includes a stronger military and recasting Japan's wartime history with a less apologetic tone.
"There is a demand by the established political forces for greater control over the people," said Mr Lawrence Repeta, a law professor at Meiji University. "This fits with the notion that the state should have broad authority to act in secret."
Mr Abe says the new law, a draft of which was approved by his Cabinet on Friday and should be passed by parliament in the current session, is vital to his plan to set up a US-style National Security Council to oversee security policies and coordinate among ministries.
Outside Mr Abe's official residence, several dozen protesters gathered in the rain in a last-minute appeal against the move.
"We are resolutely against this bill. You could be subject to punishments just by revealing what needs to be revealed to the public," one of the protesters said.
Legal and media experts say the law, which would impose harsh penalties on those who leak secrets or try to obtain them, is too broad and vague, making it impossible to predict what would come under its umbrella. The lack of an independent review process leaves wide latitude for abuse, they say.
"Basically, this bill raises the possibility that the kind of information about which the public should be informed is kept secret eternally," Mr Tadaaki Muto, a lawyer and member of a task force on the bill at the Japan Federation of Bar Associations, told Reuters.
"Under the bill, the administrative branch can set the range of information that is kept secret at its own discretion."
Media watchdogs fear the law would seriously hobble journalists' ability to investigate official misdeeds and blunders, including the collusion between regulators and utilities that led to the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster.
A probe by an independent parliamentary panel found that collusion between regulators and thenuclear power industry was a key factor in the failure to prevent the meltdowns at Tokyo Electric Power Co's (Tepco) tsunami-hit Fukushima plant in March 2011, and the government and the utility remain the focus of criticism for their handling of the on-going crisis.
Tepco has often been accused of concealing information about the crisis and many details have first emerged in the press. In July, Tepco finally admitted to massive leaks of radiation-contaminated water into the Pacific Ocean after months of media reports and denials by the utility.
"This may very well be Abe's true intention - cover-up of mistaken state actions regarding the Fukushima disaster and/or the necessity of nuclear power," said Sophia University political science professor Koichi Nakano.
Legal experts fear a broad impact on the media's ability to act as a watchdog. "It seems very clear that the law would have a chilling effect on journalism in Japan," said Meiji University's Repeta.
Critics have dismissed as political window dressing the addition of references to freedom of the press and the right to know, which were added to the bill at the insistence of the LDP's junior coalition partner, the New Komeito party.
The LDP has sought unsuccessfully previously to enact such a state secrets law but impetus was renewed after a Japanese Coast Guard official posted video online in 2010 showing a collision between a Chinese fishing boat and a Japanese patrol vessel near disputed isles in the EastChina Sea. The government, then led by the now-opposition Democratic Party, wanted to keep the video under wraps for fear of inflaming tense Sino-Japanese relations.
The Coast Guard official was suspended for one year, but resigned his post. He was not indicted for any crime.
The new legislation would create four categories of "special secrets" that should be kept classified - defense, diplomacy, counter-terrorism and counter-espionage.
Top officials in all ministries - rather than only defense officials as currently - will be able to designate state secrets for five years, renewable in five-year increments and potentially indefinitely, although cabinet approval would be required after 30 years.
"As things stand, the state gets a more or less free hand in deciding what constitutes a state secret and it can potentially keep things secret forever," Mr Nakano said.
Currently, only defense secrets are subject to such classification. Security experts say that makes defense officials reluctant to share classified data with other ministries, a pre-requisite for the functioning of the planned National Security Council.
Under the new law, public servants and others cleared for access to such information could get up to 10 years in prison for leaks. At present, they face one year imprisonment except for defense officials, who are subject to up to five years in prison or 10 years if the data came from the US military.
Journalists and others in the private sector who encourage such leaks could get up to five years in jail if they used "grossly inappropriate" means to encourage leaks.