- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 14, 2006

TOKYO — Supported by a majority of Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) members, Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe is expected to win the ruling party’s presidential race Wednesday — which is tantamount to winning the prime ministership.

Mr. Abe, however, has been a center of controversy since the mass-circulation daily Asahi Shimbun reported last year that he and Shoichi Nakagawa, the minister of agriculture, forestry and fisheries, pressured NHK, Japan’s public television network, to censor a documentary about the use of sex slaves by the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II. Most of the victims were Koreans, Chinese and Indonesians.

Mr. Abe repeatedly called the article “fabricated.” But after the Asahi article, an NHK producer responsible for the documentary conceded tearfully that the TV network was forced to remove key footage, including the heart-wrenching testimony of survivors.

“NHK sabotaged the program,” said Rumiko Nishino, co-chairperson of Violence Against Women in War-Network Japan (VAWW-NET Japan), a group formed to eliminate violence against women in war and armed conflicts. “Its top officials pre-screened a program with a very low rating and ordered their staff twice to change the content. Their pre-screening itself is an anomaly,” she added.

Soon after the documentary’s broadcast in January 2001, the Tokyo-based group filed a defamation lawsuit against NHK, one of the world’s largest television networks.

Mr. Abe and Mr. Nakagawa of NHK repeatedly denied doctoring the anti-war program. But after the report and a series of embezzlement scandals at NHK, Katsuji Ebisawa, its president, resigned “to take responsibility.” Though Mr. Abe was given much TV air time to deny the censorship report and discredit the unofficial tribunal, its organizers were not invited to tell their side.

“Mr. Abe distorted the tribunal’s revelations and gave incorrect information on national TV, but journalists who knew little about the event failed to point that out,” Mrs. Nishino said.

For instance, though Mr. Abe said the tribunal had no defense team, VAWW-NET Japan had asked then-Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori to have a defense counsel attend the unofficial trial, but since he never responded, “friends of the court” explained the Japanese government’s position and point of views, she said.

Mr. Abe could not be reached for comment.

Critics say the media shifted the attention away from the involvement of ruling party members by focusing more on a battle between Asahi and NHK.

“LDP members started complaining about NHK producing a biased program, and the network changed its content. That’s the only problem. But that’s the only thing the media apparently agreed never to make the issue of,” said Kenichi Asano, a journalism professor at Doshisha University in Kyoto.

Major newspapers criticized Asahi’s coverage, and magazines made personal attacks on an Asahi reporter who wrote about the issue, some calling him “ultraleft.”

The public relations department of the Sankei Shimbun, another major newspaper, declared: “The reason we couldn’t help being critical of Asahi Shimbun is that it is a matter affecting the whole news media. … Since NHK is a public broadcasting system, the essential problem is whether the content of the program [wartime sex slavery] was appropriate,” it added.

Public relations departments of the Nihon Keizai Shimbun and Yomiuri Shimbun declined to comment, and the editorial desk of the Mainichi Shimbun said it did not devote much coverage to criticizing the Asahi newspaper.

Last summer, however, the monthly magazine Gendai ran a transcript of the Asahi reporter’s tape of his conversations with Mr. Abe, Mr. Nakagawa and Takeshi Matsuo, a top NHK official. The article made clear that they repeatedly lied about the report of censorship, critics said.

In the end, Asahi Shimbun ran articles on Oct. 1 saying the articles regarding the NHK documentary contained “uncertain” information.

“Asahi Shimbun, which became popular as a major news organization, knelt in total surrender to Mr. Abe,” said Yasushi Kawasaki, a former NHK political reporter. “Other news organizations also go along with Mr. Abe. Journalism is as good as dead.”

With media attention focused on the LDP presidential race, Mr. Abe, who became popular by taking a strong stance against North Korea, seems to be on a triumphal march.

Since only LDP members can vote in the party’s elections next Wednesday, critics ask why the major media excessively cover the race, which experts and even some LDP members call “boring.” Moreover, despite Mr. Koizumi’s popularity, the number of LDP members has dwindled almost by half from about 2.37 million in the year 2000 to about 1.22 million at the end of 2005.

The massive coverage of Mr. Abe has helped this hawkish political leader, who critics say has suppressed freedom of speech. Most of the coverage, however, focuses on LDP candidates, not on the public or issues.

“Since their talks are preoccupied with party logic, the scope of their debate is inevitably limited,” said Ken Takeuchi, chief executive officer of Japan Internet News and a former Asahi Newspaper editorial board member.

“Mr. Abe is all over,” said Mr. Kawasaki, who taught journalism at Sugiyama Women’s College in Nagoya. “Not only opposition parties but the ruling coalition was not covered. All they got is just Mr. Abe.”

NHK, the Mainichi Shimbun, Asahi Shimbun, Nihon Keizai Shimbun and Sankei Shimbun all agree that since whoever wins the leadership of the ruling party is expected to win the prime ministership, it is natural that they should cover it. The Yomiuri Shimbun declined to comment.

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