- The Washington Times - Friday, July 20, 2007

THE WASHINGTON TIMES

TOKYO — In May 2000, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, whose administration was under fire partly because of a string of gaffes, erred again when he called Japan a “divine nation with the emperor at its center.” The remark scandalized many Japanese, who considered it a reminder of the country’s militaristic past when its soldiers ravaged Asia in the name of the emperor.

With his approval ratings tumbling, Mr. Mori agreed to take questions at a press conference. But behind the scene, the prime minister was being coached by a Japan Broadcasting Corp. (NHK) reporter.

In a secret memo prepared for the prime minister, Jun Oki, the reporter who covered the prime minister for NHK, warned him that other reporters were going to press him on the issue of his remark. He advised the prime minister to “dodge their questions” and “terminate the conference when time is up.”

A reporter for the Nishinippon Shimbun, a local newspaper, found the memo left on the copy machine in the reporters club at the prime minister’s office. The paper published the memo, but most of the mainstream press ignored it. Some major counterparts scolded the paper’s reporters for disclosing what was supposed to be an “insider’s anecdote.”

Nishinippon said it was simply doing its job: reporting the news.

A few called for the resignation of Mr. Oki, whose name was kept out of initial reports, and criticized NHK, which often is compared to the British Broadcasting Corp. for its lack of accountability. Neither Mr. Oki nor NHK ever admitted wrongdoing.

Kenichi Asano, a journalism professor at Doshisha University in Kyoto, described the incident as “egregious, given that the reporter helped the prime minister blur his political responsibility for his ‘Japan-is-a-divine-nation’ remarks at a critical stage in Japanese politics.”

The issue also typified incestuous relations between the Japanese press and government, critics said. Japan is one of the few developed nations that has rarely experienced change in political administration, as the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has ruled the nation for most of its postwar period. Some credit the press for what amounts to LDP’s one-party rule.

“For a long period of time, the major media have been serving at the LDP’s discretion. That is one of the secrets of the LDP’s long-term rule,” said Minoru Morita, a Tokyo-based political analyst.

At NHK, Mr. Oki, having kept a low profile in the intervening years, was recently promoted to executive editor for a morning news program. Asked recently whether he wrote the memo to Mr. Mori, Mr. Oki responded: “I said I did not do it. Shut up.” He then hung up. NHK corporate communications did not respond to questions regarding the affair.

Mr. Oki’s promotion is in stark contrast to the demotions of two producers involved in the production of a documentary on the 2000 mock tribunal over Japan’s wartime sexual slavery, which found the late Emperor Hirohito guilty of permitting the sexual enslavement of tens of thousands of Asian women during World War II. The producers said they had been ordered to alter the content of the program under political pressure.

NHK sent a totally wrong message that honest and serious people cannot be rewarded while those who fawn upon authority take the lion’s share,” said Yasushi Kawasaki, a former NHK political reporter who taught journalism at Sugiyama Women’s University in Nagoya.

Mr. Kawasaki was forced out of a career track at the network after his coverage of Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka’s faction was pulled off the air because of purported pressure from the LDP.

Nationalist politicians like Shinzo Abe, then acting secretary-general of the LDP, and Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Shoichi Nakagawa, were reported to have pressured NHK. But NHK, Mr. Abe and Mr. Nakagawa repeatedly denied the charge.

Because NHK’s annual budget is subject to government approval, some say, its executives ordered that news content conform to the wishes of LDP politicians, especially when its budget is being deliberated in the Diet.

In late January, the Tokyo High Court found that NHK had altered the content of the slavery program after taking into account the remarks of politicians and that NHK “abused its right to edit their program.”

The court ordered NHK and its two subsidiaries to pay damages to a citizens group that cooperated with the production of the documentary.

Akira Uozumi, an independent journalist and author who covered the issue for major magazines, concluded, “We should not consider NHK as a news organization.”

Mr. Kawasaki, who also has written books and articles on NHK’s problems, agreed and said no one at the network was willing to meet with him or even talk to him.

“There is absolutely no freedom of speech and no freedom of press at NHK,” Mr. Kawasaki said. The network is still under “the regime of terror” as Katsuji Ebisawa, NHK’s disgraced former president, still exerts overwhelming influence, he said.

The court finding was part of a series of scandals that tarnished NHK’s reputation, as several reporters and editors were arrested for a variety of crimes.

NHK suffered an embezzlement scandal involving its employees, forcing Mr. Ebisawa to resign in January 2005. The network is financed by subscription fees paid by each household with a television.

As a political reporter, Mr. Ebisawa covered major LDP factions. He is said to owe his rise to the top by virtue of the strength of Keiseikai, the powerful LDP faction of former Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita.

NHK has not emphasized journalism ethics since Mr. Ebisawa became president, critics say.

Mr. Kawasaki called the network a “department store of crimes.” One inebriated newscaster was arrested for sexual assault after fondling a woman on the street. Another reporter was sentenced to seven years in prison for arson. A bureau chief at one local station was taken to the police for shoplifting.

Moreover, the network has become more like the government’s “public relations department,” as government critics are rarely invited to its news programs, said analysts.

Morie Furuki, a Tokyo-based independent journalist, said that when he started to watch television to cover the major networks’ problems, “I was shocked to see NHK report so much news related to the North Korean abduction issue.” The government said more than a dozen Japanese people were abducted by North Korea in the 1970s.

Last year, the government ordered NHK to intensify coverage of the North Korean abduction issue on its international radio service. Concerned about freedom of the press, a civic group filed a lawsuit in March demanding that the government repeal its order.

He said the NHK’s focus on the issue helped Mr. Abe, who became popular with his tough stance against North Korea. Polls show his Cabinet approval ratings stand at about 30 percent despite his weak leadership and a string of scandals involving Cabinet ministers.

Mr. Morita said that if the press provided fair political coverage, the Abe Cabinet’s approval rating “would be almost the same as that of Mr. Mori’s Cabinet,” which was less than 10 percent.

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