Politicians check Japan's media

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

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

At the time, economists advocated the swift breakup of debt-laden banks, as they are slowing Japan's economic recovery. The anchor echoed many of them when he asked, on air, why this bank shouldn't be allowed to fail.

"That is one of the comments we consider inappropriate," says deputy secretary-general Yoshitaka Murata. "We told TV Asahi that if they continue to air comments like that, we would kick TV Asahi reporters out of our press conferences." TV Asahi apologized.

Neither Murata nor Muraoka believe the LDP applied undue pressure in this case. Neither feels the LDP's actions infringed upon freedom of speech.

Others disagree. "It's not bad to have those in power filing complaints, the problem is that they're trying to eliminate criticism," says Sadaaki Iwasaki, head of the Japan Private Broadcasting Union and Federation, of the LDP.

He points out that the LDP's position as ruling party gives its protests an edge that other parties' complaints lack and that an LDP politician heads the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications, which renews TV broadcasting licenses.

Political analyst Minoru Morita says the LDP's media officer wrote to complain about comments he made on Fuji TV. The network received a separate letter signed by two LDP politicians. "Their intention is clear," says Mr. Morita. "They are giving Japanese TV a hard time: 'If you don't listen to us, we'll take away all your licensing rights.' But it's the role of the mass media to check and criticize the government."

Clubby press relations

Many critics don't feel the Japanese media manage to do even that much, and worry the media-monitoring plan will remove what few teeth the media have left. The five mainstream dailies and the TV stations they own belong to groups called "kisha clubs."

Created to ensure access to government, they have evolved into closed fraternities clustered around sources in government, judiciary, bureaucracy, and the police. Only those who belong to a club can get access to the source that club covers. Those within a club - made up of reporters from different media outlets - generally do not write anything that isn't agreed upon by the group. The gritty tabloid press, excluded from the clubs, breaks most scandals.

But even with such an emasculated mainstream press, the LDP does indeed have reason to complain.

The LDP's Muraoka provides one example of a TV anchor who suggested that the majority of politicians benefit from illegal stock transactions, but didn't provide proof. "Only one or two a year get arrested," Muraoka says.

Even opponents believe the media have had it in for the LDP, which has been at the helm as Japan's economy and morale have plummeted. "The LDP has gotten the brunt of unfair reporting recently, we all know that," says Shinichi Sakamoto, a spokesman for the Social Democratic Party.

Mr. Iwasaki of the broadcasters' union says the LDP blames the media for its electoral defeats and points to 1993 as the starting point. That summer, the LDP lost its majority in parliament for the first time in 38 years. That fall, they called a TV journalist into parliament and grilled him at length about his election coverage, which they thought was biased. The man was forced to resign and, according to Iwasaki, remains unemployed.

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