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Editorial: Japanese gov't must not intervene in broadcasts by altering law interpretation

Japan's Internal Affairs and Communications Minister Takeaki Matsumoto has admitted that documents recording exchanges within former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's second administration over changing the interpretation of "political fairness" under the Broadcasting Act were administrative documents, and released the papers in question.

    The papers are identical to those made public by House of Councillors member Hiroyuki Konishi of the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan last week. Opposition parties have been grilling the government in the Diet over the issue, arguing that the Abe administration's moves impact freedom of the press.

    The minister's admission to the papers' authenticity indicates that there were political interventions that could distort the autonomy of broadcasting and threaten freedom of expression. It is a matter of serious concern.

    Article 4 of the Broadcasting Act stipulates that broadcasters must be "politically fair," and the interpretation of this provision has come into focus. The Japanese government had conventionally interpreted political impartiality under the law as "being judged based on a broadcaster's programs as a whole."

    Yet according to the administrative papers, Yosuke Isozaki, a then special adviser to Abe, pressured the communications ministry in 2014 and 2015 to change the interpretation of this provision to allow the government to judge political fairness of a broadcaster through reviews of each program, after pointing out that Abe was viewing a specific program as problematic.

    Isozaki himself has admitted in a recent Twitter post that "it is true that I exchanged opinions with the communications ministry over the interpretation of political fairness."

    In 2015, then communications minister Sanae Takaichi offered a new interpretation that a single program would be enough to judge a broadcaster's failure to maintain political fairness. The government also issued a view in 2016 that it "will make an overall judgment through reviews of each program."

    Communications minister Matsumoto has defended these past government moves, insisting that, "I'm unaware that there were any changes to broadcast administration." He has also reiterated that the government view issued in 2016 "was a supplementary explanation of the government's conventional interpretation."

    The recently disclosed administrative papers, however, clearly manifest that the government's interpretation of political fairness was changed at the urging of the prime minister's office.

    Such a move affects the fundamentals of the Broadcasting Act. Under normal circumstances, steps such as seeking judgment from a government council should have been taken, instead of the prime minister's office negotiating with the communications ministry behind the scenes.

    Takaichi bears grave responsibility as the then minister in charge. Regardless, she has claimed that the papers are "fabricated and inaccurate," and stated, in outright defiance, that she would step down as a lawmaker if the descriptions about herself in the papers were true.

    The Broadcasting Act was introduced after World War II out of regret over the fact that radio broadcasts were placed under government control and were used to mobilize the people during the war.

    The latest revelation raises a serious issue that has direct bearings on freedom of expression and the public's right to know. The parties concerned must provide an explanation before the Diet as to how and why politicians attempted to put pressure on broadcast programs.

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