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Following disaster, Free Press Association of Japan launches

MP Ihiro Ozawa addresses a FPAJ press conference. (Michiyoshi Hatakeyama)

After the huge catastrophe that hit Japan this March, the country is in need of a freer media culture. A less restricted media would allow more people access to information at press conferences. In the name of this aim, in April 25, a group of Japanese freelance journalists launched a new organization called the Free Press Association of Japan (FPAJ).

Since Northeastern Japan's great earthquake and tsunami and the crippling of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant, I have been even more troubled by the Kisha Club system, particularly in terms of the potential for the Tokyo Electricity Power Company (TEPCO), and the government to restrict information, possibly even endangering the lives of ordinary citizens in Japan. The Kisha Club system restricts access to press conferences held by government officials, so that only those journalists associated with large mainstream media organizations are allowed in. FPAJ is dedicated to taking Kisha Clubs on.

As Michiyoshi Hatakeyama, a freelance journalist and one of the key organizers of the FPAJ told me recently, "In Japan, it is the major media itself that plays the main role in blocking non-member journalists from access to information."

Journalists working outside of the establishment press have other issues, beyond Kisha Clubs. For instance, they are dissatisfied with the mainstream media's overuse of high-level anonymous sources, who are allowed to have their views broadcast without taking personal responsibility.

The lonely but invaluable journalists taking on practices that crackdown on press freedoms tend to be a brave lot. Take Yu Terasawa, 43, a die-hard freelancer investigating police corruption who has rebuked the overuse of police power. Many in the mainstream media have neglected this angle, afraid to lose their access to information from bureaucrats. Or prominent freelance journalist Yasumi Iwakami, who once declared, "We are fighting against the Kisha Club cartel!" Iwakami has devoted himself to working on opening press conferences.

The FPAJ was formally launched only a few weeks ago and now, press conferences hosted by the FPAJ are open to any journalists or ordinary citizens. Many internet journalists, bloggers, and even entertainers have attended. The first FPAJ press conference was held on January 27 with former Democratic Party of Japan leader Ichiro Ozawa.

"Ozawa feels mistrust towards the information manipulation by the mainstream media, who use only the negative parts of his remarks," Hatakeyama told me when I interviewed him for Shingetsu.

The independent journalists of the FPAJ also point out that their organization is paid for by private donations and member contributions, while the closed Kisha Club system is subsidized by Japanese taxpayers. Uesugi has estimated that public expenses in 2009 for maintaining official press rooms at the central government ministries amounted to more than 1.3 billion yen (about US$16.7 million). Yet the exclusive clubs clearly do not have the public interest at heart.

I can say from experience that the Japanese mainstream media have not fully exercised their duty to pick up the voices of people suffering as a result of the devastation after 3.11. Traveling as a translator with Peter Foster, a British correspondent of The Telegraph in March, I visited stricken sites in northeast Japan, such as Ishinomaki-city, Minamisanriku town, Miyagi Prefecture and Rikuzentakata, Iwate prefecture.

We witnessed a crowd scavenging for food on the streets of Ishinomaki city, about fifty kilometers from central Sendai. The Japanese media were emphasizing the many countries sending relief food to Japan rather than the rampant hunger of the local population.

"If you are in the media, please tell them we have no food," people told us. A construction worker named Takahashi showed us a couple of unfrozen gyoza (dumplings) and fish cakes he had picked up from the muddy streets. "I need it for my elderly parents, who are in their 70s," he told us.

Foster, who had reported on other natural disasters in India and Indonesia, also expressed his exasperation with the Japanese media. "Why does the media here refrain from broadcasting stories about people who are clearly short on food?" Foster asked me. "They seem to only care about maintaining the beautiful image of their country." He wrote the same in his Telegraph article.

Takashi Uesugi, a director of the FPAJ, testified at an April 6 media session with dozens of ruling Democratic Party of Japan lawmakers--including former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama--that the performance of the established Japanese media system following recent disasters had been abysmal. Immediately after 3.11, he said, the government excluded all online and foreign media from official press conferences on the "Emergency Situation," except for the special sessions eventually set up for the international media. "Freelance journalists and the foreign media are pursuing the facts, even going into the government's high-radiation exclusion zone around the plant, yet the government continues to restrict their attendance at official press conferences at the prime minister's office," he told the session. In Uesugi's view, the lack of trust that Japan's media system engenders has contributed to the rumors circulating at home and overseas.

With so many evacuee and civilian voices unheard, and so many needing more information on radiation problems and disaster relief, FPAJ has arrived not a moment too soon.

May 17, 2011 12:13 PM ET |

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