Freelance, online reporting discouraged on nuclear threat

The Japanese government upped the danger rating for the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station to its highest level, 7, on Tuesday, a month after an earthquake and tsunami devastated the country. It was not yet clear whether the administration or the Tokyo Electric Power Company, which runs the plant, withheld the extent of the risk. But the local media’s habitual allegiance to officials who arrange press conferences and companies that buy advertising makes it hard to tell, and freelancers who are eager to probe deeper say their questions have been suppressed.

When CPJ launched its 2009 edition of Attacks on the Press in Tokyo last year, we reported on the conservative structure of the Japanese news media. Under that system, professional journalists are admitted into press conferences only through membership in associations called Kisha Clubs. Freelancers need not apply.

The system can foster docility among reporters willing to forgo asking critical questions in exchange for continued access, local journalists told us. Some in Japan are asking whether these conventional reporters have been passively reprinting government and power company risk assessments unconfirmed–even when those assessments conflicted with one another or with independent findings, international news reports say.

Takashi Uesugi, an author and freelancer with an active website and Twitter page, has been asking just that. He told The New Yorker and Time Out Tokyo that the government excluded Internet and foreign media from official press conferences after March 11, effectively avoiding tough questions. His complaint has not been well received in Japan.

“I have been frustrating TEPCO, government and all the Kisha Club media,” Uesugi told CPJ by email. Appearing in his weekly guest slot on the local TBS radio station on March 15, he launched into a strong criticism of the power company. The station asked him not to come back. “I was removed from my slot on the TBS program permanently,” Uesugi wrote.

Why the caution? Japanese journalist Makiko Segawa writes that journalists are hoping to preserve their portion of the $120 million TEPCO lays out annually in media advertisements.

Segawa translated for CPJ in Tokyo in 2010 and now writes for the recently established Shingetsu News Agency, which focuses on Japan-Middle East relations. On the organization’s website, she reports that as news of the tsunami broke on March 11, several of Japan’s mainstream media executives were accompanying TEPCO Chair Tsunehisa Katsumata on a trip to China that local news reports characterized as an economic exchange group. TEPCO “did not pay all the expenses of the trip, but we paid more than they did,” Katsumata said when asked about the executives on the trip, declining to name who had taken part, according to the article.

The wish to avoid offending TEPCO is longstanding, according to Segawa. In 2007, she reports, citing a former journalist, no mainstream media reported that a Fukushima law-maker had called on TEPCO to construct a higher breakwater to guard against the threat of a tsunami.

Segawa is concerned about another sign of eroding press freedom after the disaster.

On April 6, she told CPJ by email, the Ministry of General Affairs announced a task force to enforce guidelines for Internet sites deemed to be spreading false rumors. Gossip about the risk increased as public trust in official sources of information declined, international news reports say.

The Telecom Services Association, one of the Japan’s leading internet providers, revealed April 8 that they had complied with some of the task force’s requests, resulting in the removal of prohibited information, such as images of corpses, from the Internet, Segawa wrote. “The media has not covered this story,” she told CPJ.

It is to be hoped that this step toward controlling online information does not solidify into a long-term censorship policy. The people on the ground are the ones the government should be working to protect–not TEPCO’s interests, or its own grip on information.