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As I See It: The media's purpose is to dig deep into suspicions

Liberal Democratic Party President and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (fourth from left) responds to a question at a party leaders' debate at the Japan National Press Club in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward, on Oct. 8, 2017. (Mainichi)

This country has had a history of not keeping records of things that could be inconvenient to those in power. The government is in the process of reviewing how official records are handled and managed, but as a reporter who uses the freedom of information system, I am extremely concerned that the recording and disclosure of official records will regress.

    Plans by Kake Educational Institution, chaired by one of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's friends, to set up a veterinary department at the Okayama University of Science in Imabari, Ehime Prefecture, under the national strategic special zone system, is one case that kick-started the government's review of its record management system. It was revealed that an education ministry official had left a document stating that a senior Cabinet Office official had told them it was "the will of the prime minister" that the school get quick approval.

    Officials at the education ministry initially said that they could not confirm the document existed, but were forced to carry out another probe that found it was very real indeed. The Cabinet Office, meanwhile, stated that it had not kept any records of its meeting with the education ministry, and denied the document's contents. The truth remains unclear.

    Out-of-session Diet deliberations were held on July 10 to elucidate the facts of the case. The crux of the issue was whether the government's decision-making process had been distorted because Kake's chairman was a close Abe friend. And so the Mainichi Shimbun focused its reporting on the testimony of Kihei Maekawa, a former education ministry administrative vice minister who had been summoned to the session as an unsworn witness, as well as on the government's rebuttals.

    The next day, a front-page headline in the Mainichi's morning edition read, "Maekawa says 'prime minister's office was involved,' government says it's 'innocent without a doubt.'"

    The previous governor of Ehime Prefecture, Moriyuki Kato, who had also been summoned to the session as an unsworn witness, made such remarks as, "For 10 years, as the governor, I worked to bring the veterinary school to Ehime Prefecture," and, "The national strategic special zone drilled a hole into the impermeable 'rock' that we'd had to struggle against. It's correct to say that administrative policy that had been distorted was corrected with the national strategic special zone."

    The Mainichi reported Kato's testimony in the features section of its July 11 morning edition, as well as in the city news section of its Tokyo morning edition on July 23. The Mainichi treated Kato merely as a figure who knew the broad context of events.

    From Kato's testimony, I understand that he had sought to bring the veterinary school to Ehime, but that his request had not been approved. That, however, has nothing directly to do with the government's decision about Kake under the national strategic special zone system. Moreover, Kato stepped down from the governorship in 2010. He did attend meetings on the national strategic zone, but did not participate in the decision-making process. He remarked that the government's distorted decision-making process had been corrected, but he was not in a position to know what the process entailed.

    However, as if he had been cleared of any wrongdoing by Kato's comments, the prime minister has criticized the media for not providing more coverage of the former governor's testimony. When an Asahi Shimbun editorial writer asked Abe a question at an Oct. 8 party leaders' debate at the Japan National Press Club, the prime minister shot back that the Asahi had not reported on Kato's testimony at all, and added, "Dear members of the public, please fact-check newspapers."

    The Asahi had in fact included Kato's testimony in a detailed report on the Kake case, even using his words in the headline. That is, not only did Abe have the facts wrong, he veered away from the original issue.

    What was surprising was that, as if in response to Abe's comment, the Sankei Shimbun published criticisms of the Asahi and the Mainichi on Oct. 9 and Oct. 16. Sankei wrote, "Are these papers not arbitrarily editing information in accordance with their editorial stance and likes and dislikes, and ignoring important but 'inconvenient truths?'" The paper also wrote, "Isn't the media publishing a spate of 'fake news?'"

    The Sankei specifically targeted Mainichi expert senior writer Atsuro Kurashige. At the leaders' debate, Kurashige had asked, "Mr. Abe, you haven't said anything about the fact that ultimately, your friend benefitted from favoritism. What are your thoughts on that?" When the prime minister began giving an evasive reply, Kurashige interrupted and said, "That's not what I'm asking you." The Sankei reported Kurashige's questions as "baseless and presumptuous," as well as "arrogant and emotional."

    Those in positions of authority, who have both information and the power to hide things, are always at risk of corruption. News organizations need to check if those in authority are not distorting administrative decisions. If there are suspicions that demand an explanation from the highest person in power, and official records that align with those suspicions emerge, then news organizations must report on and verify them.

    Perhaps Kurashige's questioning was not executed with the utmost courtesy, but it is only natural to urge a real response when one senses the subject is dodging the question.

    To fulfill their responsibility to the public's right to know, news organizations are expected to refuse interference by those in power when covering the news. As was seen before and during World War II, the freedom of the press is a fragile thing that is always at risk of being destroyed. We must always keep that in mind.

    This past January, at a press conference shortly before his inauguration, U.S. President Donald Trump labeled CNN "fake news," and refused to take questions from its reporters and those of other news organizations he deemed unacceptable. Furthermore, media outlets with views close to Trump's went on the offensive against CNN and other so-called "fake news" propagators. Under such circumstances, erroneous information can spread widely among the public. We must not let the same thing happen in Japan.

    Following the general election on Oct. 22, the government seems set on speeding up its process of reviewing official document management. I welcome some aspects of such efforts, but am concerned about the move that as a general rule, official records of the contents of meetings between different government ministries and agencies will be made only after the contents have been discussed and confirmed by both parties. Many experts point out that such an arrangement will make it more difficult for documents such as that one at the education ministry regarding the Kake scandal to be officially recorded. We should keep our eyes open, so that the public's right to know is not undermined. (By Ken Aoshima, City News Department)

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