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Opinion: Japan anti-slander law revisions must not become tool for powerful to limit speech


Slander and abuse on the internet is growing worse. Proposed legal revisions needed to combat it are expected to be discussed during Japan's ongoing Diet session.

    The current process for requesting the release of information on the details of anonymous people posting offensive material are complicated, and most victims are forced to just accept their plight. The process must be simplified and sped up through revisions to Japan's law limiting the liability of telecoms providers, and the right to demand disclosure of information identifying the offending posters.

    A Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications panel of experts drew up a blueprint for legal revisions at the end of 2020. If the government acts quickly, the amendments could be implemented this year.

    Although that would be desirable, there are some concerns that the revisions could lead to unjust controls on freedom of expression. Social media is a double-edged sword. While it's easy for people to use it to slander others anonymously, it's also effective at delivering justifiable criticisms. Social media-driven protest has even come to be known as "Twitter democracy," and the platforms have become indispensable parts of democratic debate in the digital age.

    In his book "Orokana kaze" (Idiot wind) published in November 2020 by Tabata Shoten, journalism professor and free speech law specialist Kenta Yamada of Senshu University expresses concern that the coming legal revisions could limit freedom of expression.

    For example, there could be instances in which politicians or large companies move quickly to identify anonymous users in an effort to clamp down on criticism. In 2002, during deliberations over a human rights protection bill presented to the Diet by the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP)-led administration, the examples of human rights infringements provided included journalistic investigations and critical reports on politicians. The proposals appeared at risk of being used as a "politician protection act," and were scrapped the following year.

    Yamada wrote of the latest proposed revisions, "There need to be clear conditions that exclude politicians and others."

    He also says that it could lead to harsher rules enforced at the initiative of bureaucracy. The proposed countermeasures plan put forward recently by the communications ministry outlines a need for governments and businesses to create a cooperative framework, or joint regulations.

    But according to Yamada, this could lead to private entities looking at government rules and inferring from them restrictions they themselves should be implementing, creating a kind of government-guided self-censorship. For this reason, he says that it's important to establish a third-party organization that can ensure transparency and fairness not just for parties looking to get online posts deleted quickly, but also for parties to lodge complaints about the response taken.

    Looking back at history, we can take lessons from the examples of people in power who tried to alter the law to their advantage. The piggybacking seen during the deliberations for the human rights protection bill is a typical example.

    I want to see the brakes put on the current revisions before they can be finalized.

    (Japanese original by Tomoko Ohji, Expert Writer)

    Tomoko Ohji was formerly the Mainichi Shimbun's correspondent in Washington and then Jerusalem.

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