Shut down unfriendly newspaper publishers; pressure editors who don’t toe the official line; lean on businesses that support media outlets critical of the government. Such oppressive practices targeting the media are the hallmarks of a tyrannical regime, not a democracy. But these were among the ideas that got bandied about during a recent meeting at the headquarters of Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party.
The LDP lawmakers were members of the party’s Youth Division and the meeting, in late June, was supposed to be a chance to debate prime minister Shinzo Abe’s policies on culture and art. But their guest, Naoki Hyakuta, a best-selling novelist and former governor at public broadcaster NHK, led the discussion in a different direction.
According to Japanese media, Hyakuta said that two dailies in Okinawa – The Okinawa Times and The Ryukyu Shimpo – should be “destroyed” for turning public opinion against the Abe administration’s plans to relocate a US military base in the southern Japanese prefecture. He also suggested that Okinawans would be in for a rude awakening if China were to launch an invasion.
Opposition lawmakers and the media went on the offensive. Left-leaning daily The Asahi Shimbun said the remarks point to “arrogance and negligence on the part of the ruling party”.
The public outrage over this has landed junior LDP lawmakers in hot water and stirred a national debate about press freedom. It has also renewed concerns that ruling party officials are eager to muzzle critics at a time when Abe’s administration is pushing policies that don’t have broad public support. How convenient it would be to rewrite parts of the country’s pacifist constitution and restart idle nuclear reactors if opposing voices weren’t so easily heard.
Over the past week and a half, the LDP has been in damage-control mode. The ruling party has reprimanded several lawmakers and removed from his post the rising star who led the Youth Division. Abe later apologised for what he called his colleagues’ “thoughtless remarks”. On Saturday, the government’s top spokesman, chief cabinet secretary Yoshihide Suga, met with Okinawa governor Takeshi Onaga to apologise for the indiscretion.
Critics have latched onto the incident as evidence that the Abe administration is intolerant of dissent and willing to consider (and in some cases even employ) strong-arm tactics against the media. In April, the LDP questioned executives of NHK over the broadcaster’s coverage. It also called on officials at TV Asahi for an explanation after a regular commentator and former top government official openly criticised Abe’s administration on a popular news programme. And before last year’s parliamentary election, the LDP sent letters to broadcasters in Tokyo reminding them to be “fair and neutral” about their election reporting.
Looming in the background is the state secrets law, which went into effect last December and gives officials broad powers to withhold classified information and to imprison whistle-blowers and journalists who reveal secrets even when they are trying to protect the public interest. Clearly, LDP officials could use a refresher course on democracy. Japan’s media companies didn’t pull any punches this time but it wouldn’t hurt for them to show that they can be a lot feistier.
Kenji Hall is Monocle’s Asia editor at large.