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Industry, scholars lambast communications minister for comments on silencing broadcasters

Internal Affairs and Communications Minister Sanae Takaichi (Mainichi)

Internal Affairs and Communications Minister Sanae Takaichi is being lambasted by the broadcasting industry and constitutional scholars over suggestions that the government could take TV stations off the air for repeated politically unbalanced reporting.

At a Feb. 8 House of Representatives Budget Committee meeting, Takaichi was asked by the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ)'s Soichiro Okuno whether she would take a station off the air if it violated the Broadcast Act's fourth article, which calls for politically fair programming. She said, "I can't promise that we will not do anything if a station repeats such behavior and doesn't improve at all after government guidance."

The following day, Takaichi responded to a question from the DPJ's Yuichiro Tamaki by saying, "I cannot guarantee that, in the future, we will not apply punitive measures" for violation of the Broadcast Act.

One source close to the commercial television industry said, "I can only think that by dangling the prospect of taking a station off the air, the minister of internal affairs and communications is creating a mood that will reduce the degree of broadcasting freedom."

On the other hand, another industry source told the Mainichi Shimbun, "Takaichi only repeated the same stance the government has held until now." The source added, "When we take up a political issue, we are careful to not use only one side's opinion."

The Broadcast Act's fourth article, in addition to calling for politically fair programming, also says that programming should not bend the truth. The act's 174th article, meanwhile, gives the head of the ministry the right to order a station to halt business operations if it fails to meet the act's stipulations on programming, and the Radio Act's 76th article gives the minister the right to order a station taken off the air.

A manual on the Broadcast Act written by a former administrative vice minister for internal affairs and communications says that a broadcaster can be suspended if it clearly violates the Broadcast Act, its programming is damaging the public good and it is necessary to stop it from continuing, and if the broadcaster has repeated this offense without implementing sufficient preventative measures.

In 2007, then Internal Affairs and Communications Minister Hiroya Masuda mentioned taking stations off the air in response to a question in the Diet, and in 2010, under DPJ rule, the communications minister of the day Hideo Hiraoka said the government was treating potential punishments "very carefully." At a Feb. 9 press conference, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said that Takaichi "only answered what is obviously true."

However, among constitutional scholars, the common view is that the rules set forth in the Broadcast Act's fourth article are only ethical guidelines, and that using them as grounds for direct government interference in broadcasts would run afoul of the Constitution's protection of the freedom of expression.

Professor of the Constitution and media law Hidemi Suzuki of Keio University, who is knowledgeable about the Broadcast Act, commented, "Takaichi's statements are generally in line with past interpretation (of the law) by the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry, but one could also interpret them as lowering the bar (for punishment). If she repeatedly says such things in the Diet, it will constitute a threat against broadcasters and damage freedom of expression."

The Japan Federation of Commercial Broadcast Workers' Unions released a statement on Feb. 10 calling Takaichi's remarks "nothing other than threats and intimidation against broadcast stations" and demanded they be retracted.

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