Japan: State security does not justify restricting information

To the group of developed democracies, such as Britain and the United States, each with increasingly restrictive attitudes toward press freedom, add Japan, which appears to be on the brink of passing a new state secrets protection law. If passed by the upper house of the Diet today, it would broaden the criteria the government uses to determine which information will be secret. Jake Adelstein, a Tokyo-based reporter who has blogged several times for CPJ, calls it “an ominous new bill” which would “give the government expanded powers to classify nearly anything as a secret and intimidate the press into silence.”

The bill has been on the fast-track for approval. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s cabinet approved it in October, and the Diet aims to pass it before the current session ends on Friday. It is fully backed by the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in coalition with the New Komeito party. Together they hold a strong majority in both chambers of the legislature. Meanwhile, the most recent Asahi Shimbun poll found voter opposition to the bill at 50 percent and rising, while support for the Abe government has fallen to 49 percent.

Japan’s government is using the same justification to curtail information we have seen recently in other democracies: state security.

CPJ has long been taking on authoritarian governments in Asia for using similarly vague justifications for controlling information and jailing journalists who dare criticize their policies. In Cambodia, bloggers can be sent to jail for “inciting a rebellion” and in China for “inciting the subversion of state power.” In Vietnam the charge can be “conducting propaganda against the state.”  The comparison is not an overstatement. Note that in the last few days the government had to back away from statements by Shigeru Ishiba, the LDP’s secretary-general, who blogged that the loud street demonstrations criticizing the bill were “terrorism.”

While we have frequently criticized Japan’s hierarchical media culture and the government’s approach to controlling information, this bill is something much larger. Its opening chapter states frankly and baldly that the “increasingly complex international situation” makes clear the “growing importance of securing information related to national security.”

The Asahi Shimbun says cabinet ministers and other heads of the government’s executive branch would designate information which could jeopardize Japan’s national security if leaked as “specified secrets.” The specified secrets would cover four areas: defense, diplomacy, prevention of spying and other enumerated harmful activities, and prevention of terrorism.

It’s behind a paywall, but on October 25, Asahi Shimbun published an online English language translation of the bill as it stood in near-final draft.  The proposed bill will effectively allow the government to proclaim any potentially embarrassing information a “state secret” and to keep it from the public for 10 years with the opportunity to extend that period.  Under the new law, a whistleblower could face up to 10 years in jail for publishing what the government deems a “state secret.” That level of punishment for what is arguably not a crime is not protective. It’s repressive.