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Top court's ruling slaps NHK with big responsibility for 'public' broadcasting

The NHK Broadcasting Center in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo, is seen in this Oct. 8, 2010 file photo. (Mainichi)

The Supreme Court's Grand Bench ruled on Dec. 6 that public broadcaster NHK's reception fee system is constitutional, acknowledging the significance of the public broadcasting system and upholding the fee collection system as "reasonable." The ruling gave a stamp of approval to the highly controversial system while also binding the broadcaster with a grave responsibility for its public role.

In the eyes of commercial broadcasters, which are embroiled in fierce viewership competition, NHK -- with its aspiration to provide "public media" both via television and internet broadcasts while shelving a plan to reduce reception fees -- appears nothing less than a bloated organization. In addition, issues such as how to deal with mobile phones with "one-segment" broadcasting services still remain a matter of debate surrounding one of the world's largest media organizations.

The top court's Grand Bench handed down the ruling shortly past 3 p.m. on Dec. 6, with Chief Justice Itsuro Terada stating, "The reception fee system was adopted to ensure the public's right to know under freedom of expression and falls within the legal discretion permitted under the Constitution." As Terada is retiring in about a month, it was his last delivery of a ruling.

The ruling pointed out that the Broadcasting Act and the reception fee collection system are compatible with the principles of the Constitution, which guarantees freedom of expression. The decision interpreted the Broadcasting Act as defining NHK as an entity that is managed autonomously under democratic and pluralistic bases, and carries out broadcasting for the sake of public welfare. The ruling went on to say that the subscription fee system "characterizes the broadcaster's public nature from a financial aspect."

While the focal point of contention was whether the fee collection system runs counter to the freedom of contract guaranteed by the Constitution, the top court ruling stopped short of clearly stating whether the fee system constrains such freedom under the supreme law.

NHK has argued that the subscription fee system allows the broadcaster to fulfill a fair, impartial and politically neutral role without being influenced by specific interests or viewer ratings, and the top court ruling echoed NHK's position.

As NHK is constrained by Diet decisions in terms of its budgets and personnel affairs, however, criticism abounds over its weak attitude toward political affairs. Recalling their work at the public broadcaster, a senior NHK official confided to the Mainichi Shimbun, "We have managed to strike a fragile balance between the governing parties at the time and members of the public that are the viewers." While the top court decision did not elaborate on the definition of "public nature," it effectively imposed a heavy responsibility on NHK in exchange for guaranteeing its budget resources.

The Broadcasting Act stipulates that persons installing reception equipment capable of receiving NHK broadcasts conclude a contract with NHK for the reception of those broadcasts. The Supreme Court generally sided with NHK in its claim over contracts, but dismissed the broadcaster's assertion that the contract is concluded at the point when a contract application form is delivered to the person who refused to sign up. Therefore, NHK will not be able to take such direct legal procedures as sending overdue payment reminder letters to those who refused to sign a contract, and will need to continue bringing each case to court in order to demand those who refuse to cooperate enter into a contract.

As the Dec. 6 ruling recognized reception contracts as legal obligations, however, those who declined to sign up with NHK are almost unlikely to win any similar lawsuits in the future. Furthermore, the five-year statute of limitations for fee payments will be frozen until court rulings are finalized, raising risks for even higher payments for those who have long refused to pay since their installation of reception equipment. This will have a tremendous psychological impact on contract deniers, possibility facilitating NHK's fee collection work.

While none of the 15 justices on the Grand Bench stated that the subscription fee system was unconstitutional, some of them suggested the need to introduce a separate law. Justice Kaoru Onimaru stated in a supplementary opinion, "Considering that the reception contracts are an exception of the basic rule of freedom of contract, it is essentially desirable to write down the system into law, including the content of the contracts," referring to the fact that the Broadcasting Act does not provide for the details of the subscription contracts. She also raised questions about the reception contracts targeting each household while family and other lifestyles are rapidly diversifying in modern society.

There still are pending suits involving NHK's subscription fee system, including cases over mobile phone "one-segment" (one-seg) broadcasting services. While NHK has demanded that the owners of cell phones with one-seg functions make reception contracts even though they do not own TV sets at home, district court rulings were split in their conclusions -- with three ruling in favor of NHK and recognizing the fee payment obligations, while another dismissing such duties. The cases are now being tried at high courts, and the Supreme Court is likely to hand down a uniform ruling.

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