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Editorial: Japan must heed concerns about press freedom

U.N. Special Rapporteur David Kaye, a professor at the University of California who visited Japan to investigate the state of press freedom, has warned of "serious threats" to the independence of the press in Japan.

Kaye called for amendment to the Broadcast Act among other measures to rectify the situation. He is expected to make recommendations on freedom of the press to the Japanese government next year. Both the Japanese public and the government should humbly listen to his opinions on freedom of expression, a right guaranteed by the Constitution.

The United Nations launched an investigation into the situation of freedom of the press in Japan as Internal Affairs and Communications Minister Sanae Takaichi hinted that the government could temporarily ban broadcasters from going on air under Article 4 of the Broadcast Act, which requires TV and radio stations to be politically impartial.

Kaye called for abolition of the clause and urged the government to stop regulating media organizations. Moreover, he called for an independent administrative body, not the government itself, to supervise TV and radio stations.

Article 4 of the Broadcast Act has been regarded by many legal experts as an ethical provision encouraging broadcasters to show self-discipline. Rather than focusing on whether the clause should be abolished, questions should be raised about the way the government has wrongly interpreted it as a legal restriction with a view to take punitive measures against broadcasters.

The Broadcasting Ethics & Program Improvement Organization (BPO), set up jointly by public broadcaster NHK and private broadcasters, should solve problems involving the content of TV and radio programs at its own discretion. The Broadcast Act provides the bare minimum rules, considering the huge influence broadcasters have on society.

What is worrisome is that some private organizations are putting pressure on broadcasters, citing violations of Article 4 of the law.

One organization that calls itself "a viewers' association urging that the Broadcast Act be observed" issued a statement saying it is considering initiating a nationwide "awareness-raising campaign" among program sponsors, arguing that coverage of Japan's security-related legislation on commercial television station TBS lacks political impartiality.

People are free to criticize programs, but it is impermissible to put pressure on and suppress freedom of expression. It is only natural that TBS has argued that the organization's move is a serious challenge to freedom of expression and eventually to democracy.

On the issue of political impartiality, NHK President Katsuto Momii previously stated that the public broadcaster needs to try to achieve a balance in each and every program it airs. His remark appears to support the government's view that the political neutrality of a broadcaster should be assessed by examining each program it airs -- a stance that could have a chilling effect on those producing programs.

Reporters without Borders, an international organization of journalists, recently announced that Japan's ranking in the 2016 World Press Freedom Index had fallen to 72nd, significantly below its place at 61st a year earlier.

The United Nations had planned to probe the state of freedom of expression in Japan last year, but the investigation was suddenly postponed until this year at the urging of the Japanese government. During his investigation in Japan, Kaye interviewed Japanese journalists and others in news organizations, but was unable to meet Internal Affairs and Communications Minister Takaichi.

Some past investigations conducted by the United Nations have not accurately grasped the actual situation. If the government disagrees with the outcome of such an investigation, then it can provide a detailed and careful explanation of its position. However, the government should be aware that concerns about freedom of the press in Japan are spreading overseas.

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