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Uproar after protesters' voices muted in NHK Olympic torch livestream

Protestors against the Tokyo Games are seen along the Olympic torch relay course in the city of Nagano on April 1, 2021. (Photo courtesy of Keiko Okazaki)

TOKYO -- The sound on public broadcaster NHK's livestream of the April 1 Olympic torch relay in the central Japan city of Nagano was abruptly cut for almost 30 seconds after the voices of individuals along the course protesting the Tokyo Games could be heard.

    The silencing of their voices raised suspicions on social media that NHK may have cut "inconvenient sounds" from the livestream.

    The local leg of the torch relay started at the main hall of the city's Zenko-ji Temple shortly past 7 p.m. on April 1, and a total of 12 runners covered the roughly 2.5-kilometer segment in around 30 minutes before finishing at the square in front of Nagano City Hall.

    When the Mainichi Shimbun checked the footage on the broadcaster's dedicated website for the event, the sound was confirmed to have been cut for about 30 seconds during the seventh runner's part of the course.

    The nearly half a minute of silence appears bizarre to viewers. Footage of the scenes quickly went viral on the same evening, with comments critical of NHK flooding social media, including "inconvenient remarks (for NHK)" and "(the broadcaster is) shutting out protest."

    There were 11 protesters in the footage, including members of a citizens group based in the community, which has been opposing the Tokyo Games since movements to host it started in Japan. It previously demonstrated against the 1998 Nagano Winter Games, and

    Olympic gold medalist Kenji Ogiwara, right, departs from Zenko-ji Temple as the first runner for the Olympic torch relay leg in the city of Nagano on April 1, 2021. (Pool photo)

    According to group member and resident Keiko Okazaki, 67, demonstrators gathered in front of the TOiGO shopping complex, along the seventh runner's part of the course, from around 6:20 p.m. to shortly past 7:30 p.m. They held up banners reading, "Focus on coronavirus countermeasures," and, "Cancel the Olympics," and used megaphones to raise voices of protest against the games from the view of local residents.

    Although their demonstration was initially audible for a moment in NHK's live footage, it vanished suddenly.

    The protest had been temporarily halted by a nearby individual who appeared to be a security guard, who said, "We are also asking other people to refrain from shouting aloud." Though the Tokyo Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games' coronavirus countermeasures guidelines ask audiences to clap instead of cheer, footage sometimes shows people cheering. It is suspected that the demonstration was suppressed in the name of coronavirus countermeasures.

    Why were their voices suddenly silenced, even though the gathering hadn't caused a large disruption?

    While the organizing committee is attempting to prevent coronavirus infections by calling for people to as much as possible watch Olympic torch relay via livestreams instead of physically crowding relay courses, an official at Tokyo 2020 Olympic torch relay media secretariat said, "The organizing committee does not manage it (the livestream)." They added that editing of live footage, such as muting the audio, is at NHK's discretion and that it's unknown as to why that particular segment was silenced.

    When the Mainichi queried an NHK public relations official, they said, "We took a response after judging various circumstances, including consideration for torch relay runners."

    What are the "various" circumstances referred to?

    People are seen protesting the Tokyo Games along the Olympic torch relay course in the city of Nagano on April 1, 2021. (Photo courtesy of Keiko Okazaki)

    The NHK official continued in responding to the query: "It is true that various opinions were aired along the course. We made a judgment based on those circumstances." Again, the official used the term to bluntly explain that they decided mid-livestream to narrow down the voices.

    Naofumi Masumoto, a visiting professor at Tokyo Metropolitan University and Musashino University and an expert on the Olympic Games, questioned NHK's approach. "It is abnormal to not air voices at the scenes, especially when the people (along the course) were not using hate speech or sabotaging the torch relay," he said.

    Livestreams often make protests unfolding along Olympic torch relay courses visible. The 2008 Beijing Olympics were an exception; China aired torch relay footage domestically after cutting images of protesters calling for Tibet's independence from China.

    "At every Olympic Games, there have been objections and protests. But even if there were demonstrations along the torch relay course, they were tolerated. If NHK decided not to report on (the protests in Nagano), then it's extremely unnatural," Masumoto said.

    During the Beijing Games, NHK showed footage of Tibetan independence demonstrators. The Chinese government domestically blocked reports on them aired by NHK and other overseas media, and in turn, the media outlets reported critically on Chinese authorities. Having done so, is it not a double standard to then not air voices of protest during the Tokyo Olympic torch relay?

    Regarding the 2020 Games, there were news reports of homeless people being forcibly removed during construction of the Japan National Stadium in Tokyo. In the Nagano Olympics, some foreign workers involved in the games' venue construction were later found by law enforcement to be illegally overstaying their visas.

    "After all, the Olympics excludes whatever is inconvenient to the games," Okazaki noted. "We didn't halt the torch relay or obstruct it. We just voiced objections (against the Olympic Games). A sound civil society is one that tolerates different opinions, and it's the media's role to report on those voices."

    Will NHK continue to silence voices of protest in their livestreams, and will it be reported in the news? More than ever, the public's attention is turned toward the torch relay.

    (Japanese original by Harumi Kimoto, Integrated Digital News Center)

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