- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 19, 2016

TOKYO (AP) - A U.N. rights expert warned Tuesday of “serious threats” to the independence of the press in Japan, including laws meant to protect coverage fairness and national security that he said could work as censorship.

U.N. Special Rapporteur David Kaye, finishing a weeklong visit to Japan in which he interviewed journalists and government officials, said many Japanese journalists were feeling pressured to avoid sensitive topics, and that some told of being sidelined because of complaints from politicians.

“The independence of the press is facing serious threats - a weak system of legal protection, persistent government exploitation of a media lacking in professional solidarity,” Kaye told reporters at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Tokyo.

He said he was taken aback by a widespread fear among journalists in Japan, many of whom requested anonymity to talk to him, fearing repercussions.

The picture of Japanese journalism he painted was unflattering, including newspapers delaying or killing stories critical of the government. He also said a reporter was demoted and given a salary cut after writing an article on the nuclear plant in Fukushima, which went into meltdowns in 2011.

Among Kaye’s concerns is a law meant to ensure media-coverage fairness that allows the government to revoke broadcasting licenses over perceived violations. He also said the so-called “secrets act” law, meant to protect national security and public safety, is so broad it could obstruct people’s right to know.

Japan’s government has repeatedly said freedom of the press is protected in the country, and sees nothing wrong with the law about the broadcasting license.

That penalty has never been carried out on a broadcaster, but Kaye noted such measures can work as a threat to keep outspoken journalists in check.

He said he decided to visit Japan after hearing about well-known broadcasters quitting, fueling speculation that they had been forced out.

Kaye, whose report Tuesday was preliminary, is making a full report next year to the U.N. Human Rights Council. He said his job is not to take action but to identify problems, and urged reporters and activists in Japan to work together to change the climate for journalists.

Japan needs to pass anti-discrimination laws, instead of focusing on hate speech, which could backfire and curb the freedom of expression, he said.

It also needs to protect whistleblowers, crucial for providing reporters with information about nuclear power, disaster response, national security and other topics of public interest, Kaye said.

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Follow Yuri Kageyama on Twitter at: https://twitter.com/yurikageyama

Her work can be found at https://bigstory.ap.org/content/yuri-kageyama

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