State Secrets

11.29.13

Japan’s new Secrets Bill Threatens To Muzzle The Press and Whistleblowers

An ominous new bill in Japan, on its way to becoming law, would give the government expanded powers to classify nearly anything as a secret and intimidate the press into silence.

The best way to deal with foul smelling things is to put a lid over them (臭いものに蓋をする)--Japanese proverb

The Japanese government, which already has a long history of cover-ups and opaqueness, is on its way to becoming even less open and transparent after the lower house the Diet, Japan’s parliament, passed the Designated Secrets Bill on Tuesday. With new powers to classify nearly anything as a state secret and harsh punishments for leakers that can easily be used to intimidate whistleblowers and stifle press freedom, many in Japan worry that the if the bill becomes law it will be only the first step towards even more severe erosions of freedom in the country.      

The bill, which can criminalize investigative reporting of the government or its policies, still needs to pass the Diet’s upper house to become law and is meeting some last minute opposition on its way there. In politically complacent Japan, thousands of citizens took to the street in the last two weeks to protest the measure. Diet members are voicing disapproval and news organizations are standing opposed. Even cute Japanese celebrities have voiced their opposition, a sure sign that this is serious business in the land of the rising sun. Last week, the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights voiced their disapproval and concerns, noting the “the Secrets bill threatens transparency… (it) includes serious threats to whistle-blowers and even journalists reporting on secrets”.

With only 30% of the public supporting them, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the Liberal Democratic Party bloc pushed the legislation ostensibly to “ensure that Japan can share secrets with the US and other countries”. However, even politicians inside the ruling bloc are saying, “It can’t be denied that another purpose is to muzzle the press, shut up whistleblowers, and ensure that the nuclear disaster at Fukushima ceases to be an embarrassment before the Olympics.”

The Special Secrets Bill is based on a failed anti-spying bill proposed by Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone (LDP) in the 1980s. Currently there are already several laws on the books that punish civil servants for leaking secret information obtained on the job. The new law would enact harsher punishment to leakers and ominously would allow journalists who obtained information by “inappropriate means” and whistleblowers to be jailed for up to ten years. The law would also allow the police to raid the offices of media organizations and seize evidence at their discretion.

Under the law government branches other than the defense ministry would have the power to designate information as state secrets. The bill has even grants no longer existent agencies the power to classify secrets.

The law names four categories of ‘special secrets’, which would be covered by protection – national security, diplomacy, counter-terrorism and counter-espionage. Yet, despite the bill’s enlargement of the state’s power over information, it contains no oversight process to act as a check on ministries and government agencies designating large amounts of information as ‘secret’ for capricious or self-interested reasons.

Under the new law, the Ministry of Financial Services could put a lid on the scandal of mega-banks loaning money to the yakuza, Japan’s mafia, by classifying their “business improvement orders” as matters of national security and making them state secrets. The SESC could declare the reasons for delisting a company from the stock exchange “classified” for similar reasons. This is not reassuring of those wishing to invest in the Japanese stock market, which has already been dogged by compliance and disclosure issues.      

And most tellingly, Masako Mori, the Minister of Justice, has declared that nuclear related information will most likely be a designated secret. For the Abe administration this would be fantastic way to deal with the issue of tons of radiated water leaking from the Fukushima Daichi Nuclear Power Plant since the triple meltdown in March of 2011. There seems to be no end to stopping the toxic waste leaks there but the new legislation would allow the administration to plug the information leaks permanently.

As the radioactive water from Japan’s nuclear disaster continues to pour into the ocean and our food supply, it is an ominous sign that the Japanese government refuses to disclose information about the levels of pollution or timely information about the next nuclear accident. And security issues at Japan’s nuclear power plants being, which hold enough plutonium to make hundreds of atomic weapons, including reports that they’re manned by the yakuza, could also be hidden by under the guise of state secrets.

Before Japan was selected to host the 2020 Olympics, Prime Minister Abe spoke at the General Meeting of the International Olympic Committee, where he assured them, “The Fukushima nuclear accident is under control.” This was followed by revelations of large amounts of radioactive water leaking from the power plant, and the remaining water tanks emitting radiation levels so high that anyone working around them would be exposed to a lethal dose within hours. It made Abe look perfidious or clueless or both. He seems anxious not to lose face again.

Mizuho Fukushima, former leader of the Social Democratic Party, compared the bill to the pre-World War II Peace Maintenance Preservation Laws and other Secrecy laws at the time, remarking that there was a time in police-state Japan when the weather reports could be considered “secret.”

““Once you open the door to such kind of laws, the government will have the right to designate anything as a state secret and by speaking about it or mentioning it, you can be arrested and prosecuted.” Ms. Fukushima explained, “Especially during war time, it was very difficult for defendants and lawyers to fight their court cases, because they were not told what exactly what was the state secret that they had been accused of having revealed.”

Outspoken Upper House Councilor Taro Yamamoto, who is known to be a strong supporter of investigative journalism, minces no words: “The path that Japan is taking is the recreation of a fascist state. I strongly believe that this secrecy bill represents a planned coup d’état by a group of politicians and bureaucrats,” he warned.

While his statement may seem alarmist, even a senior official of the National Police Agency agrees. “I would say this is Abe’s attempt to make sure that his own shady issues aren’t brought to light, and a misuse of legislative power.

Ironically, In a country that worships cute celebrities, the first real reporting on the problems with the bill began in September, when Norika Fujiwara, an actress who is also the goodwill ambassador for the Japanese Red Cross, came out against the law on her blog. She indicated it would threaten freedom of speech and democracy itself and urged her fans to pressure the government to kill the bill. When a beautiful celebrity takes up arms against legislation in Japan, even the media takes notice. And after taking notice, they didn’t like what they found.

The Japan Newspaper Publishers & Editors Association, the Civil Broadcasters Federation, and most major news organizations in Japan’s have expressed staunch opposition to the bill. In a rare journey into the political arena, even The Foreign Correspondent’s Club of Japan, which includes both Japanese journalists and non-resident journalists, issued a strong protest against the bill on November 11th. The Japanese media, almost without exception、reported the details of the statement.

“We are alarmed by the text of the bill… relating to the potential targeting of journalists for prosecution and imprisonment. It is at the very heart of investigative journalism in open societies to uncover secrets and to inform the people about the activities of government. Such journalism is not a crime, but rather a crucial part of the checks-and-balances that go hand-in-hand with democracy. The current text of the bill seems to suggest that freedom of the press is no longer a constitutional right, but merely something for which government officials “must show sufficient consideration.” Moreover, the “Designated Secrets Bill” specifically warns journalists that they must not engage in “inappropriate methods” in conducting investigations of government policy. This appears to be a direct threat aimed at the media profession and is unacceptably open to wide interpretations in individual cases. Such vague language could be, in effect, a license for government officials to prosecute journalists almost as they please.”

If history does repeat itself, it would seem very likely that as Ms. Fukushima fears, Japan is about to take a giant step back into its oppressive past. When one also considers Prime Minister Abe’s stated ambition to restart Japan’s nuclear power plants and remove Article 9 from the constitution, the article which prevents Japan from waging war, it seems like the Empire of The Sun may be moving towards darker times.