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Politicians check Japan's media

On the lookout for biased reporting, ruling party expands press monitoring with citizen volunteers.

By Nicole GaouetteStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 10, 1998



TOKYO

A camera boom swoops into position on the set of "Sunday Project," one of Japan's top political talk shows. The "on air" countdown hits zero, the host leans forward and introduces leading politician Ichiro Ozawa.

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They banter, then stop for a break. In homes across the country, viewers are switched to a commercial. On the set, the two men lean away from each other, smiles draining until both are stone-faced and silent, Mr. Ozawa wiping sweat from his brow.

Politicians and the press are natural adversaries - think snake and mongoose. Now, in a development that may chill freedom of speech and suggests democracy in Japan is more about conformity than freedom, some of Ozawa's colleagues have decided to do something about the media.

The ruling Liberal Democratic Party is establishing a 24-hour system to monitor radio, newspapers, and especially TV for incorrect or biased reports about the party - an attempt to remedy coverage that even opposition parties agree is sometimes unfair. "We need to see more consistent and appropriate coverage in all media reporting," states an LDP document obtained by the Monitor.

It's the latest development in a trend that has left one journalist out of work, forced apologies from several networks, and raised tensions on both sides of the press-politician divide.

The plan comes as the LDP, weakened after damaging losses in a July election, is flexing more political muscle. It also coincides with increasing calls for greater press accountability, particularly in the coverage of crime.

And though the plan could limit certain types of political coverage, there has been very little mention of it in the mainstream media. Constraints already at work within Japan's press establishment suggest little uproar is likely.

2,000 volunteer watchdogs

The LDP's Information and Research Bureau already monitors the media in a limited way and is directing the expansion. A bureau memo dated Oct. 13 asks party members to enlist 2,000 volunteers from across the country.

The volunteers, to be in place early next year, will get guidelines and material on LDP policies. They will file reports by fax or telephone on news reports they consider inappropriate or biased. The LDP will then investigate and decide whether to pursue the complaint. In the most extreme cases, it will sue.

Television is a special concern, says Kanezo Muraoka, the LDP's acting secretary-general. He reads from Japan's broadcast law, which calls for "balanced universal coverage" and, on debatable issues, requires that networks provide all views. This balance is missing, Mr. Muraoka says. "Because this is a mass- media age, if [the media] report incorrectly, it can affect public opinion," he explains. "We have no intention to control the media. But when we come across biased reporting, we want to be able to respond firmly."

But recent events show the LDP's desire for more "appropriate" news might mean something closer to more appropriate opinions.

This fall on a talk show on the TV Asahi network, a well-known anchor was discussing plans to spend billions in taxpayer funds to support a large bank, thought to be insolvent, with a long history of government ties.