Japan's national media have long been accused of docility and self-censorship in their reporting on political leaders and other powerful figures.
But recent comments from the government raised the specter of overt censorship in what some see as a threat to democracy.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government, which took power at the end of 2012, has been cranking up the pressure against newspapers and television stations that are not toeing the party line. Producers of programs where guests have criticized government policies have been hauled before parliamentary committees to explain themselves. In March, three news anchors of current affairs programs who are known for being outspoken will be replaced – a result, many believe, of backdoor pressure.
Earlier this month, the minister for Internal Affairs and Communications, Sanae Takaichi, seemed to up the ante further by warning that television stations could be taken off the air if they broadcast "biased political reports."
"We cannot guarantee not to take action when a broadcaster shows no improvement and repeatedly airs politically unfair news reports despite instructions from the ministry," she added.
Tradition of restraint
Japanese media have long been circumspect in their criticism of those in power, a result in part of their historical organization into tightly controlled press guilds. Each ministry and major corporation has a "kisha (journalists) club" for reporters, who almost exclusively belong to the major domestic news organizations. News is often fed to members at press conferences and in off-record briefings. Afterward, reporters compare notes in a process known as "memo awase" to ensure an almost uniform line. Members who engage in unauthorized scoops or are overtly critical in their reporting can face restricted access or even expulsion from the club.
But the government's stronger-arm tactics have nonetheless caused consternation. Its warnings come as it faces an Upper House election early this summer against the backdrop of growing pessimism about its "Abenomics" policies aimed at pulling Japan out of stagnation. A two-thirds majority in the Upper House would allow Mr. Abe to push through reforms to the pacifist Constitution, what some see as his lifelong political mission. Before the general election in December 2014, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) sent a letter to broadcasters warning them to be politically neutral in their coverage. With this year's election to be the first where 18- and 19-year-olds will be voting, the minister's threat to broadcasters last week may be a sign it is worried a younger electorate would be more easily influenced by critical TV reporting.
Attack on dissent
In case there was any misunderstanding, Ms. Takaichi told the press after her initial comments that "Laws stipulate that when a broadcaster violates the Broadcast Law, an order to suspend its operations and broadcasts can be issued."
Some media observers and academics called them an unprecedented attack on political dissent in postwar Japan.
"She should respect freedom of speech, she went way too far. I find it very worrying that someone like that is in the government," said Takashi Koyama, a visiting professor of politics at Akita International University.
"I don't think it's an exaggeration to say this is a threat to democracy," said Mr. Koyama. "I had hoped the prime minister would criticize Takaichi's comments, but he supported her."
Indeed, the prime minister said last week that "opposition parties are trying to create the erroneous impression that the government or our party is applying pressure to freedom of expression. Decisions on political impartiality will not be made on the content of one program, but on all of a television station's programming."
The Broadcast Law was introduced in 1950 while Japan was still under US military occupation. Its clauses on political impartiality were introduced with one eye on the extensive use of media propaganda by Imperial Japan before and during the Pacific war.
The law stipulates that broadcasts shall be politically impartial and cover controversial issues from multiple angles, but also guarantees freedom from editorial interference.
Warning shot to media groups
Newspapers are not subject to the same requirements. However, the four major daily papers are owned by media groups that each contain one of the main commercial television stations. Shots fired across the bow of the stations have served as a warning to the rest of the group.
"It's part of the current government's strategy for pressuring the media … they know very well how the media will react," says Mikihito Tanaka, professor of journalism at Tokyo's Waseda University. "In Japan, it's important to be able to 'read the air,' and I often hear from journalists that the pressure doesn't come directly from the government, but from their editors."
Even before the threats against the television stations, the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) Democracy Index 2015, released at the end of January, demoted Japan to "flawed democracy" status due to "increasing media censorship."
The EIU pointed to calls from members of the LDP for companies to withhold advertising from newspapers critical of government policy. The report also cited the December 2014 passage of the State Secrecy Law, under which a journalist can be prosecuted even for being told what is vaguely defined as a "special secret."
One journalist at a major daily newspaper, who asked not to be identified, said that statements like those from Takaichi, the communications minister, will have an effect on media across the board.
"When journalists hear that, they know the situation has changed and they need to hold back," he said. "Make no mistake about that."