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Editorial: Japan's NHK raises questions over political involvement in exec reappointment

An unusual personnel move at Japan's public broadcaster NHK recently came to light. In April, NHK President Terunobu Maeda withdrew the plan initially presented to the broadcaster's Board of Governors that would have seen Executive Director Yuji Itano retire. Instead, he was reappointed. The Mainichi Shimbun uncovered the news.

    Under the Broadcasting Act, NHK's vice president and other directors are appointed by the president upon approval from the Board of Governors, the broadcaster's top decision-making body.

    The Mainichi Shimbun found that ahead of a board meeting, Maeda sent a sealed personnel proposal that included a plan for Itano to step down, but it was later retracted. The board was subsequently presented with a proposal to have Itano stay on; a majority of board members approved it.

    Directors normally serve two terms lasting four years total. Itano previously served two terms before stepping down, but then made an unusual comeback for a third term in 2019. Therefore, he has already served six years as a senior director and executive director, with the latest reappointment marking the start of his fourth term.

    Maeda explained that the personnel move was made to "steadily carry out reforms," but some board members voiced concerns that reappointing the 67-year-old Itano amid reforms involving promotion of young members could affect morale.

    Within NHK, Itano has been viewed as a figure close to the government administration. Sources at NHK said that when Itano was serving as the head of the General Broadcasting Administration, a position overseeing all programming, he ordered NHK not to air shows relating to a set of security-related bills that elicited strong public criticism of the then Shinzo Abe administration.

    When approached by the Mainichi Shimbun over Itano's reappointment, Maeda said the move was not a reflection of the wishes of the prime minister's office.

    However, as a public broadcaster that promotes itself as independent and autonomous, NHK not only has a responsibility to maintain neutrality in its programming content; its personnel affairs need to be transparent.

    In recent years, a series of scandals at NHK have incited public and viewer distrust.

    NHK's Board of Governors sided with complaints from the Japan Post group to censure then President Ryoichi Ueda regarding the broadcaster's 2018 coverage of predatory insurance sales practices by Japan Post Co. Some have asserted that the board intervened in programing, but the minutes of meetings at the time have not seen full public disclosure.

    NHK is funded by reception fees. Public broadcasting requires public trust. President Maeda should explain what is behind Itano's reappointment.

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