In Japan, anger at Shinzo Abe's heavy hand on press turns mainstream

The prime minister is accused of blocking free expression and emboldening the ultra right. Meanwhile, the number of international scholars protesting Abe's views of World War II has jumped from 187 to 450. 

Shizuo Kambayashi/AP
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, shown here at a press conference in Tokyo on May 14, has come under increased fire from critics who accuse him of restricting press freedom.

Is Japan’s commitment to free speech foundering?

A growing chorus of critics accuses the Abe administration of trampling on press freedoms, moving the issue beyond a coterie of academics and journalists.

Fears are rising that honest debate over Japan’s wartime conduct is being stifled by right-wing revisionists and conservative politicians tied to the prime minister. This follows a high profile public outburst by a prominent political commentator – and a recent open letter sent to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe by 187 top Asia scholars from around the world.

In his final appearance earlier this year on TV Asahi’s Hodo station, a popular current affairs program, Shigeaki Koga claimed he had been forced off the show following pressure from government officials. 

Mr. Koga, a former high-flying bureaucrat whose stinging criticisms of Mr. Abe were a feature of his appearances, said he had been subjected to a “fierce bashing” by the chief cabinet secretary, Yoshihide Suga.

In an unprecedented move, the governing Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) summoned TV Asahi executives to explain Koga’s outburst.

The executives, aware that the government has the power to revoke their broadcasting license, simply caved in and apologized. The LDP also summoned executives from Close-up Gendai, a current-affairs program that has taken Abe to task, over alleged reporting errors.

Some of the ongoing fulminations over press freedom and intimidation revolve around the legacy and reporting of "comfort women," women forced during World War II to provide sex to Japanese soldiers. That is part of a larger effort by the right wing here to present a different picture of the war. 

In the middle of this storm is Takashi Uemura, a former journalist for the left-leaning Asahi Shimbun. Mr. Uemura was part of a reporting team that published a string of erroneous articles about aspects of Japan’s wartime use of Asian sex slaves. Abe has publicly dressed down the Asahi, blaming it for sullying Japan's international reputation over the comfort women. That has emboldened Japan's revisionists. 

Last year the Asahi apologized for the errors, fired senior staff, and commissioned an independent inquiry. Uemura denies that he was responsible for writing any of the incorrect Ashai reports. 

Call to fire Uemura

Yet ultra-right wing activists want more. They are now calling on Hokusei Gakuen University in Hokkaido, where Uemura lectures, to dismiss the former reporter. He and his 17-year-old daughter, whose mother is South Korean, have received death threats.

The treatment of Koga and Uemura points to a trend that has seen Abe and other LDP officials openly interfere in editorial decisions.

The LDP asked media organizations to “show fairness” in their coverage of last December’s general election, an unprecedented move critics believe carried an implied threat to broadcasters who did not comply.

Even foreign ministry officials have been enlisted as part of the government campaign. Carsten Germis, former Tokyo correspondent for the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, said his editor had been visited by the Japanese consul general in Frankfurt, who objected to Mr. Germis’s coverage of World War II issues. This year marks the 70th anniversary of the end of the war. 

Another correspondent in Tokyo, who did not wish to be named, received an e-mail from a foreign ministry official “advising” the reporter to stop quoting a prominent left-wing academic in articles about comfort women.

Abe’s allies in the media, meanwhile, have quietly signed up to the prime minister's well-known contention that the Japanese Army did not coerce the women into sexually serving soldiers during the war. 

The Yomiuri Shimbun, with a daily circulation of about 10 million, announced that it would no longer use the term sex slaves in its coverage. The broadcaster NHK now openly toes the government line on diplomatic issues such as territorial disputes with China and South Korea.

The public broadcaster, whose conservative chairman Katsuto Momii was hand picked by Abe, has also banned its journalists from referring to sex slaves.

From 187 to 450 scholarly critics

“International broadcasting is different from domestic,” Mr. Momii said when he was appointed. “It would not do for us to say ‘left’ when the government is saying ‘right.’ ”

But any hopes Abe might have had of containing criticism of his heavyhanded approach toward the media were misplaced.

This week, Koga used the pages of The New York Times to take the government to task over its treatment of the media.

“The Abe administration’s treatment of journalists is worthy of an authoritarian state, not the liberal democracy Japan is supposed to be,” Koga wrote in an op-ed piece.

Shortly after Abe returned from a trip to the US where he addressed a joint session of Congress, some of the world's most prominent international Asia scholars voiced alarm at attempts to rewrite Japan’s wartime history and to intimidate media organizations that are considered off-message. 

In an open letter in support of Japanese historians published in May, 187 scholars called for “as full and unbiased an accounting of past wrongs as possible.” Now, more than 450 scholars and academics from around the world say they want to be part of the list. 

So far, Abe’s government has not tried to cow the media by using a new state secrets law that would allow the government to imprison journalists for using leaked information. Perhaps it doesn’t need to: in its latest world press freedom index, Reporters Without Borders ranks Japan as 61st out of 180 surveyed countries.

Uemura, after initially avoiding the media glare, recently went on a speaking tour of the US, and is pushing back.

He has filed a libel lawsuit against a professor at Tokyo Christian University and a magazine publisher for claiming that he fabricated a report about sex slaves in the early 1990s, an allegation he denies.

“Why am I alone singled out as a target for attack?” Uemura said. “I did not make up my articles.” But as Koga and other journalists can attest, he is no longer alone.

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