Asia-Pacific, Gender, Headlines, Human Rights

JAPAN: New Ruling Party Poised to Lift Foreign Press Restrictions

Catherine Makino

TOKYO, Sep 16 2009 (IPS) - The newly elected Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) plans to open government organisations to the foreign press, party member Kuniko Tanioka revealed in an interview with IPS.

“We are going to do away with media restrictions,” Tanioka said. “It’s important for the DPJ to be fully open to the entire press.”

A member of the House of Councilors (upper house), Tanioka managed the campaigns of the DPJ women candidates in Japan’s election in late August. Her party won 308 seats in the lower house, ending the Liberal Democratic Party’s (LDP) more than five decades’ grip on power.

The groundbreaking DPJ plan is expected to remove the long-standing barriers that have kept many freelance journalists, radio and web reporters, local publications and foreign news agencies from joining ‘kisha kurabu’, or reporters’ clubs, owing to an established media culture in Japan.

But while some media quarters are expected to welcome the plan, notably the foreign media, others are sceptical about how this will be received by the ‘kisha’ clubs.

Tomohiko Taniguchi, a political analyst who was once a government spokesperson, said he does not believe “that any democratically elected politician can face up to a group or guild of reporters from all political orientations that are rock-solidly united to protect their vested interest (in the ‘kisha’ club) unless they can stand a hugely negative press.”

These groups will fight the DPJ on this planned change, he said.

“I would expect that the media oligarchs in Japan, who have the most to lose by the crumbling of the ‘kisha’ club system, will do what they can to preserve it,” said Steve Herman, past chairman of the Foreign Press Club in Japan (FPCJ) for five consecutive years.

Others, however, anticipate a positive response from the public should the DPJ plan push ahead.

The public will welcome such a move, said Jeffrey Kingston, Japan expert and professor at Temple University in Tokyo. It would also signal that the DPJ is serious about “taming the mandarins and imposing political control over the bureaucracy,” he said, adding that it is an important symbolic break with the LDP style of governance that manages information in cahoots with the bureaucrats.

Monzurul Huq, current president of the FPCJ, said abolishing the ‘kisha’ club system would help journalists a lot, especially freelancers, the foreign media and small publications who do not have access to any official press conferences.

The FPCJ includes members from international media outfits such as CNN, CBS, Time Asia, ‘The Guardian’, German national daily ‘Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung’, among others.

“Japan is changing and democracy is taking hold after 54 years of the Liberal Democratic Party’s rule here,” said Huq. “Japan needs to change (its) old bureaucratic structure. In fact, many of our club members have been kept out of press events.”

The ‘kisha’ clubs are news-gathering associations of reporters from specific media entities that are granted access to specific events or media resources such as press meetings or releases, corporate announcements and government or police debriefings.

Press rooms or work spaces are allotted to club members by both public and private institutions such as the parliament, ministries, local government units, the Tokyo Stock Exchange, Japan Business Federation, the police department and the Prime Minister’s office.

Membership rules governing these clubs are restrictive, and press conferences are usually limited to journalists belonging to the clubs. Other countries have similar arrangements for the press, but Japan’s ‘kisha’ system is considered unique.

The ‘kisha’ system began in 1890 in response to a ban imposed by the first Imperial Diet that denied media access to their discussion sessions. In response, a reporter from ‘Jiji Shinpō’ (‘Current Events’), for years one of Japan’s most influential newspapers, formed the ‘Group of Journalists Visiting the Diet,’ which put pressure on the government to grant its members access to those meetings.

A compromise was reached in which the government imposed on the media what it wanted the public to know, which the media then dutifully reported to the public. Newspaper companies across Japan eventually merged and formed the Associated Newspaper Journalists’ Club, which became the first ‘kisha’ club.

According to the ‘Japan Times’ newspaper, there may be as many as 1,500 press clubs across Japan today that liaison between the news media, government institutions and major private sector organisations.

Today news conferences are open to some non-members to observe and report about. A few ministers, such as those of the Foreign Ministry, allow foreign non-members to attend and ask questions. Some wire agencies assign reporters at the Finance Ministry, regardless of their membership status in the ‘kisha’ club. This system also applies to photographers. Foreign wires have been given some access to certain government units such as the Imperial Palace, said Herman.

“I don’t think the system was ever totally closed to foreigners,” he said. “It was just that the rules were so onerous that it made it virtually impossible to be a (‘kisha’) member.”

One such rule, he said, required a member organisation to assign a full-time staff to a particular ministry to spend an inordinate amount of time managing the ‘kisha’ club on a rotation basis. “But the system was designed to be exclusionary and perpetuate a symbiotic relationship between news makers and news gatherers,” he added.

Over the years, the system created major problems for the foreign media, who became the object of blatant discrimination by some agencies or institutions that would hold “news conferences” open only to ‘kisha’ club members, Herman recounted.

“I remember a particular incident near Osaka where a horrific school ground murder had occurred (and) which had attracted international attention,” he said. “The police held a news conference, but foreign correspondents that had gone to the city were barred because they were not ‘kisha’ club members.”

Critics say ‘kisha’ clubs limits the competitive edge among member reporters, since they have information made available at the same time. Reporters also lose their independent or investigative mindset and innate curiosity.

“Combined, the insufficient knowledge, the diminished independence and the disappearing curiosity will make the club reporters an easy object of influence, if not manipulation, for the government agency in question,” Taniguchi said.

While the FPCJ had always conceded a of registration system of some kind was necessary due to capacity limitations and need for security checks inside ministries – a standard practice even in the western countries, what it objected to were deliberate efforts to bar their organisations simply because they were foreigners and not ‘kisha’ club members.

The European Union (EU) had questioned the ‘kisha’ system in the past, saying it was posing a competitive disadvantage to some news agencies that could not get news releases in a timely manner. This led the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, to issue a statement in 2003, saying: “Japan’s press cub system serves as a trade barrier, excluding foreign correspondents from access to news conferences and briefings.

The administration of former prime minister Shinzo Abe, who resigned in September 2007 after barely a year in office, had also attempted to lift the restrictions on the foreign press at the beginning of his tenure, but to little avail.

“You are now looking at a newcomer (DPJ leader and new prime minister Yukio Hatoyama) who wants to prolong the honeymoon period as long as possible to make the next year’s upper house election once again an easily winnable one,” Taniguchi said.

“I would still be extremely amazed if the incoming Hatoyama government successfully either abolished the system or, if that is too big a leap, somehow bypassed it,” he said.

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