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Editorial: Gov't should not threaten autonomy of broadcasters

Internal Affairs and Communications Minister Sanae Takaichi has pointed to the possibility of ordering broadcasters to suspend their transmission of radio waves if they are deemed to have repeatedly aired programs that lack political fairness.

    She made the remark during a recent House of Representatives Budget Committee session. Even though she maintained that such a measure could be taken only in extreme cases such as those where broadcasters fail to take sufficient preventive measures, her suggestion at the possibility of banning broadcasters from airing their programs is abrupt and abnormal. It would have to be called a threat by those in power.

    Takaichi also mentioned conditions for ordering broadcasters to suspend their business under the Broadcast Act and those for issuing a suspension order of radio wave transmissions under the Radio Act.

    Specifically, Takaichi pointed out that the internal affairs and communications minister can order broadcasters to suspend operations in cases where their programs impairs public interest and when it is necessary to prevent such harm and the same broadcasters repeat similar acts.

    She also said the government regulator cannot promise to take no action in cases where broadcasters fail to improve their business practices after they repeat similar acts despite of administrative guidance.

    "Broadcasters will not be forced to go off the airwaves while I am minister, but there is no guarantee that the penalty will not be applied in the future," she said.

    It is true that there are legal provisions authorizing the government to force broadcasters to go off-air, but there is no imminent problem that will allow the minister to invoke these provisions. It is only natural that such remarks publicly made by the communications minister, who has broad administrative authority over broadcasters, have raised questions over the intentions of the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

    Article 76 of the Radio Act stipulates that the internal affairs and communications minister can ban a broadcaster from transmitting radio waves for a specified period if the licensee violates this law or the Broadcast Act and revoke its license if it fails to improve its business operations. Article 4 of the Broadcast Act requires broadcasters to be politically fair.

    However, television and radio programs should be voluntarily and autonomously regulated by broadcasters based on their own sense of responsibility. Article 4 of the Broadcast Act has been widely interpreted as ethical standards. This should not be arbitrarily distorted.

    There have been instances where ruling coalition politicians created a stir by putting their nose into TV news program content.

    In November 2014, prior to a House of Representatives election, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) sent a notice to six Tokyo-based TV stations asking them to be fair and neutral in covering the election after judging that TBS's coverage of public opinions of the Abe administration's economic policy was "biased." In April 2015, the LDP's Research Commission on Info-Communications Strategy summoned NHK and TV Asahi executives and interviewed them over their program content.

    The Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry is changing its interpretation of Article 4 of the Broadcast Act from ethical standards to a legal provision with an eye to meting out punishments to those that run counter to the provision. Prime Minister Abe told a lower chamber budget committee session in November last year, "The clause isn't a mere ethical norm but a legal provision. It's natural for the government regulator to respond to violators in accordance with the legislation."

    Serious questions remain about the Abe government's interpretation of the Broadcast Act. If the governing party is to urge broadcasters that are systematically vulnerable to political influence with possibly imposing punishments, it could be viewed as political pressure.

    Public broadcaster NHK and private broadcasters have set up the Broadcasting Ethics & Program Improvement Organization to solve problems involving broadcasting and has made certain achievements. The government should go back to the principles of the Broadcast Act and watch over the industry's efforts to maintain fairness in their program content.

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