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TV stations claim they considered fairness in lack of election coverage

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe answers questions from a TV station worker during an interview at the ruling Liberal Democratic Party's headquarters in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo, on July 10, 2016. (Mainichi)

Television stations failed to extensively cover the latest House of Councillors election until the July 10 voting day, apparently out of consideration for fairness.

According to M Data Co., which monitors TV programs and commercials, television stations spent a total of about 26 hours on covering the election, a decrease of nearly 30 percent from the coverage of the previous 2013 poll, which amounted to some 36 hours.

Critics have pointed out that TV stations' coverage of the election campaign was boring although special programs on vote counting were exciting.

One cannot help but wonder whether TV broadcasters were hesitant about actively covering the campaign. The Mainichi Shimbun focused on the matter from several viewpoints.

TV producer Dave Spector criticized TV stations' coverage of the election on Twitter on the night of July 10. "How should we react to special programs showing candidates, political parties and their supporters after the election. Too late! Totally useless," his tweet said. It had been retweeted 43,000 times by July 13. It was reportedly the largest-scale spread of his tweet. He usually posts puns and other jokes.

"Maybe, I should stop posting puns since my serious message received such a great response," Spector said and laughed.

"They (TV stations) withheld information they had gathered and released it immediately after the voting. Over about a two-week period, voters were placed in a black box where insufficient information was provided. I can't believe that they are media outlets in a democratic country," he continued.

Public broadcaster NHK and commercial broadcasters simultaneously began to air special election programs immediately after ballot boxes were closed at 8 p.m. on July 10. There has been growing criticism that TV stations failed to sufficiently cover the election during the official campaign period.

Fuji Television Network (Fuji TV) reported on the progress of vote counting as well as on relations between Nippon Kaigi (Japan Conference), a conservative lobby organization seeking constitutional revisions, and the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Fuji TV also covered how the Buddhist-lay organization Soka Gakkai extended support to Komeito, a ruling coalition party.

The program pointed out that if those in the pro-constitutional revision camp secured two-thirds of seats in the upper chamber, amendment to the supreme law would grow increasingly realistic.

Aki Okuda, a key member of the Students Emergency Action for Liberal Democracy-s (SEALDs) and a guest of the program, raised questions about the broadcaster mentioning key points after voters have cast their ballots.

"Why do you talk about such a thing immediately after the election? I think that many viewers would say, 'Was constitutional amendment a point of contention in the election?'" said Okuda.

Fuji TV's public relations department explained, "While keeping in mind the importance of points of contention, we took maximum care not to deviate from fair and just news coverage at a sensitive time."

TV Tokyo also aired a special program with similar content, and showed a viewer's tweet saying, "I wanted you to report that kind of thing before voting day."

Sadaaki Iwasaki, a former TV Asahi reporter and editor of Media Research Institute's magazine "Hoso (Broadcasting) Report," said, "Both broadcasters and politicians may be under the wrong impression that news programs must equally treat candidates and political parties in a mechanical manner."

Article 148 of the Public Offices Election Act stipulates provisions regulating election campaigns "shall not preclude the freedom of coverage and commentary."

The Japan Newspapers Publishers & Editors Association pointed out in 1966 that there had been criticism that newspapers tended not to actively report or run commentaries on elections for the purpose of ensuring fairness in such polls.

The industry body then announced the unified view that if newspapers' coverage and commentaries happened to bring benefits to certain political parties or candidates, it would be within the range of freedom under Article 148 of the Public Offices Election Act and no problem.

Iwasaki says, "Television is a form of media that tends to be open to criticism. As such, TV broadcasters tend to report news in an innocuous way so that they don't receive complaints. More active debate is needed on freedom of the press during election campaigns."

Spector sarcastically said, "How about editing the special programs aired shortly after the latest election to an hour or two hours and show them before voting day of the next Diet election? In that case, broadcasters wouldn't have to be concerned about offending candidates and would be able to provide useful information to voters."

NHK devoted different amounts of time to covering campaign speeches by all major political parties immediately after the official campaign for the latest upper house race kicked off in proportion to the numbers of seats the parties have in the chamber.

The amount of time NHK devoted to showing a speech by Prime Minister and ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) leader Shinzo Abe was about 1.8 times that spent on covering a speech by Katsuya Okada, head of the largest opposition Democratic Party (DP).

Hiroaki Mizushima, professor of journalism at Sophia University, urges NHK to show clear standards for the amounts of time the public broadcaster devotes to covering campaign speeches by political party leaders.

According to Mizushima, on June 22 when the campaign started, NHK's News 7 showed Abe for 21 minutes and 57 seconds, DP's Okada for 12 minutes and four seconds, Komeito leader Natsuo Yamaguchi for seven minutes and 57 seconds, and Japanese Communist Party Chairman Kazuo Shii for seven minutes. The shortest coverage time was three minutes and 44 seconds for New Renaissance Party chief Hiroyuki Arai.

In contrast, News Zero aired by Nippon Television Network (NTV) on that night spent 14 to 20 seconds to showing each political party leader.

"The amounts of time that TV shows dedicate to party leaders could influence viewers' support for political parties. If NHK is to devote different amounts of time to its coverage of the leaders of political parties according to each party's strength in the chamber, the broadcaster should announce the criteria and basis for that," says Mizushima, who had worked as a reporter and program director at NTV.

NHK's public relations department emphasized that the public broadcaster covered each party leader's campaign speech at its own discretion based on freedom of the editing of programs on elections, which is provided for by the Public Offices Election Act, but stopped short of showing clear criteria.

In a program on party leaders' campaigns and private time with their families aired on July 9, the day before voting day, NHK showed Abe for about 20 minutes and 30 seconds, Okada for around 11 minutes and 50 seconds, Yamaguchi for approximately eight minutes, Shii for about seven minutes and Arai for some two minutes, according to Mainichi analysis.

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