Japan's Troubled News Media

An overzealous, sensationalist press too often oversteps its bounds - with serious consequences

Japan and the world were shocked recently at the grisly murder and decapitation of an 11-year-old boy in Kobe by a 14-year-old schoolmate.

Jumping at a not-to-be-missed opportunity for sensationalism, one of Japan's most notorious pictorial weeklies, Focus, immediately published a photograph of the suspect. Though it violated Japan's Juvenile Law, which prohibits publicizing the identities of minors suspected of crimes, the editor of Focus declared that because of the extreme brutality of the crime, it "exceeds the limit presumed by the Juvenile Law."

As a former reporter for Kyodo News Service and now one of the directors of the Liaison Committee on Human Rights and Mass Media Conduct, I have observed a number of cases in which irreparable damage has been done to people's lives and reputations by an overzealous press convinced that law enforcement is one of its duties.

In fact, historically, the Japanese news media have tended to function as a support, rather than a counterbalance, to official authority.

In one case with which I am very familiar, an innocent citizen was portrayed as the perpetrator of the first sarin gas attack in Japan. Seven people died and many others were affected - all in the same residential neighborhood. The doomsday Aum Shinri Kyo cult has since been implicated.

On the evening of June 27, 1994, Yoshiyuki Kouno, a resident of Matsumoto, a city two hours north of Tokyo, stepped outside to check on the family dogs and found them writhing on the ground, white froth oozing from their mouths. A few moments later his wife collapsed and Mr. Kouno himself was stricken.

When the police visited Kouno at the hospital the next day, his condition was still extremely grave. He asked them to return when he felt better. During a conversation with his son the following day, he learned that the press, acting on police leaks, was portraying him as the prime suspect in the poisoning attack.

Indeed, when he returned home after a month's hospitalization and began perusing through the newspapers that had accumulated in his absence, headline after headline referred to him as the police's prime murder suspect.

In one of the most outrageous articles in the weekly tabloid magazine Shincho (put out by the same publishing house as Focus), Kouno's family, whose grandfather was a pioneering botanist, was smeared. And the fact that he had spoken through a lawyer was noted with the parenthetical comment: "If he's innocent, why does he need a lawyer?"

Much of the news coverage focused on comments from neighbors who said they felt unsafe and hoped the police would arrest Kouno soon. The cumulative impact was to create near-unanimous public opinion of Kouno's guilt. He received hundreds of threatening letters and phone calls.

The Kouno case has striking parallels with that of Richard Jewell, the security guard wrongly accused in the Olympics bombing in Atlanta on July 27, 1996. However, in contrast with the earnest efforts of the United States press to correct its excesses - Life magazine even included Mr. Jewell in its heroes issue - the Japanese press has remained intransigent.

After the Tokyo subway sarin gas attack in March 1995, in which Aum Shinri Kyo was implicated, Kouno received apologies from private citizens who felt they had wronged him.

But much of the press did not print retractions or apologies, and those that did used only a tiny fraction of the space devoted to the original accusations. The weekly Shincho issued only a small back-page apology for its deplorable coverage - and in the editor's name, not the publisher's, as originally promised.

Though Kouno was never arrested, it's worth noting that Japanese law allows police to detain an arrested suspect for up to 23 days without charges. The maximum detention in the United States is 12 hours. During this long incarceration, Japanese police often leak "confessions" to journalists who in turn report the information as fact. This practice leads to a number of false charges based on forced confessions.

The solution to all this must come from within the news media and from Japanese journalists themselves. Press councils or Western-style ombudsman systems are possible remedies. Peer review and comment is essential to maintain a healthy and independent press.

Indeed, it is time for the world press to turn its investigative attention to Japan's troubled news media.

* Kenichi Asano, a former reporter for the Kyodo News Service and founder of Japan's Liaison Committee on Human Rights and Mass Media Conduct, is professor of journalism and mass communications at Doshisha University in Kyoto, Japan.

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