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Gov't intervention into TV programs raises question: Can autonomy be kept?

Questions regarding government involvement in television programming are continuing to be raised.

    Last year in November, the Broadcasting Ethics & Program Improvement Organization (BPO) -- a third-party body established by the Japan Broadcasting Corporation (NHK) and private broadcasters -- issued criticism that the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP)'s Research Commission on Info-Communications Strategy's April questioning of executives from NHK regarding programming content had constituted "pressure."

    Around the same time, debate also took place regarding the regulation of "political impartiality" as provided for by the Broadcast Act.

    On Dec. 9 of last year, 30 executives including those from five major private Tokyo television broadcasters -- the Nippon Television Network Corp. (NTV), TV Asahi Corp, Fuji Television Network, Inc., Tokyo Broadcasting System Television, Inc. (TBS) and TV Tokyo Corp. -- gathered in the banquet hall of a hotel in metropolitan Tokyo for a luncheon meeting.

    Tsutomu Sato, chairperson of the LDP Diet Affairs Committee, first delivered a speech -- and then engaged in an opinion exchange session with the assembled participants regarding the topics of broadcasting and communications.

    According to Sato's office representatives, they had begun making preparations for the event several months in advance, which was hosted by a supporting political organization, and for which each participant paid a total of 20,000 yen. The luncheon was the first of its kind organized by a body linked to Sato, and its income and expenditures will be reported in terms of a "political fundraising party" under the Political Funds Control Act.

    Sato, who formerly served as minister for internal affairs and communications and chairs an LDP Research Commission on Info-Communications Strategy sub-committee to reform the Broadcast Act, is regarded as a politician who is knowledgeable regarding broadcast administration.

    So why were executives of Tokyo broadcasters present at this gathering? Spokespersons from the five broadcasters all admitted during interviews that their executives had been in attendance at the luncheon -- with some adding additional commentary such as the fact that "opinions were exchanged."

    Names of individual participants, however, as well as the amount of funds paid, were not released.

    An NTV representative commented, "Participation (at the event) is a matter that was left up to the individual."

    NHK, meanwhile, had no response -- including with respect to the matter of whether or not any of its representatives were in attendance. An official commented, "We do not answer questions regarding the individual affairs of our executives and employees."

    A representative from Sato's office was quoted as saying, "The event took place for the purpose of holding an opinion exchange. There was no political pressure whatsoever, although we have no future plans as a political office to remain involved (with this matter)."

    According to the provisions of the Radio Act, television stations must receive an operating license every five years from the internal affairs and communications minister that has jurisdiction over radio administrators.

    Article 4 of the Broadcast Act, moreover, requires that program editing "must be politically impartial," and that "coverage must not distort the truth."

    These are the regulations, then, that are referenced by political administrators and ruling party members when approaching broadcasters regarding the flavoring of their program coverage.

    "Even if this was just a general opinion exchange session, the fact that specific politicians who are involved with broadcasting policy called together television station executives -- and the fact that the television stations responded in kind -- represents a violation of media ethics," commented Yasuhiko Oishi, a media ethics professor at Aoyama Gakuin University.

    He added, "Mass media outlets should keep their distance from the power structure, and should remain fair and just."

    Instances of politicians from the ruling parties causing a stir by approaching television broadcasters regarding their stations' programming have been drawing attention since the year before last.

    In November 2014, just prior to the House of Representatives elections, TBS' News23 program included a segment whereby it asked people on the street about the pros and cons of the economic policy of the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. LDP officials, claiming that the program was "biased," subsequently sent a memorandum to the six major Tokyo television broadcasters calling for "fair and impartial" election-related coverage.

    The LDP additionally sent a memo to TV Asahi that similarly called for "fair and impartial" coverage of economic policy during its "Hodo Station" news program.

    In April of last year, the LDP's Research Commission on Info-Communications Strategy questioned executives from NHK and TV Asahi, respectively, regarding suspicion of staging in the former's "Close-up Gendai" program on a priest-related scam; as well as the latter's "Hodo Station" program, wherein former bureaucrat Shigeaki Koga said that he had been "verbally bashed by members of the prime minister's office."

    Sanae Takaichi, minister of internal affairs and communications, issued a severe rebuke to NHK officials following the program. In addition, a lawmaker commented while attending an LDP function in June, "The mass media should be punished by having their advertising revenues canceled."

    While conducting an inquiry into the "Close-up Gendai" program incident last November, however, the BPO criticized the involvement of ruling party members and the executive branch of the government -- while also calling on the broadcasters to assume a firm stance with respect to the matter.

    This spring, there will be new faces during the news programs of three different broadcasters. Newscaster Hiroko Kuniya from NHK's "Close-up Gendai" program, main newscaster Ichiro Furutachi with TV Asahi's "Hodo Station," anchor Shigetada Kishii with TBS' "News23" program, and Takako Zenba, a main newscaster with the same program, will all be replaced at the same time.

    Kishii will be working as a special coordinator for TBS, while Zenba will work for the station as a special broadcasting newscaster.

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