Journalists in Japan face threats 3 years after Fukushima

At the end of last month, an evacuation order declared during the 2011 Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear plant power plant meltdown was lifted for residents of a small town in Fukushima Prefecture, the first time an area so close to the site was declared suitable for habitation. Yet, three years after Earthquake Tōhoku killed 15,000 people and triggered the nuclear accident, journalists seeking to investigate the disaster face sustained risks, according to CPJ research. 

In the immediate aftermath of the nuclear disaster, CPJ reported that the government had evaded journalists’ questions and cracked down on Internet sites accused of spreading false rumors. Now, these practices have solidified into a long-term censorship policy under the Shinzo Abe government, which in December approved a controversial secrecy law that CPJ condemned as a hallmark strategy of authoritarian governments to stifle critics.

Journalists and whistleblowers could now face imprisonment of up to 10 years for revealing vaguely defined “secrets.” Masako Mori, minister in charge of the legislation, said in November that information on how nuclear power plants are guarded will be designated as state secrets.

“Japan is currently nuclear-free, but the government is trying to restart some power plants,” David McNeill, a Tokyo-based journalist and co-author of Strong in the Rain, Surviving Japan’s Earthquake, Tsunami and Fukushima Nuclear Disaster told CPJ. “They’re very interested in influencing the media to say that it’s business as normal and to play down the impact of the Fukushima disaster,” he said.

Commercial interests also influence reporting on nuclear issues. During the past four decades, nine of Japan’s top utility companies spent a combined 2.4 trillion yen (US$27.6 billion) to purchase media advertising to promote nuclear power, according to an investigation by the national bilingual newspaper Asahi Shimbun. Utility companies remain one of the top sources of advertising income for mainstream media, according to reports. In one case described by the Center for Public Integrity, electric companies forced an undisclosed television station to cut off an interview with nuclear skeptic Taro Kono by threatening to withdraw their advertising.

The press freedom situation in Japan is not as alarming as in other advanced Asian economies such as Hong Kong, where there are increasingly physical attacks on journalists. But there are troubling signs of self-censorship in Japan. For example, in 2012, foreign media widely reported on independent studies that found contaminated water from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant was leaking into the sea. But before the plant’s operator admitted to the leaks late last year, few Japanese media outlets portrayed the studies as compelling proof of contamination, McNeill said.

Freelancers in particular have faced threats in their reporting of the nuclear issue. CPJ has frequently criticized Japan’s hierarchical media culture, in which professional journalists are admitted into government, police, and corporate press conferences only through membership in associations called Kisha Clubs, which are closed to local freelancers and foreign media. Gains made by freelancers under this system have been erased since the Fukushima disaster.

One Japanese freelance journalist, who requested anonymity for fear of professional repercussions, told CPJ, “Before the New Democratic Party returned to power, the press club system was actually gradually opening up and freelancers were able to get admittance to some press conferences. But the doors have closed firmly again.”

Michael Penn, chair of the Freedom of the Press Committee of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan, said some freelancers reporting on Fukushima face legal repercussions. “It seems that companies have chosen to go after individual reporters instead of the media organizations they work for, perhaps in order to intimidate them and send a message to other journalists,” he told CPJ.

Penn was referring to a libel suit that one of Japan’s most powerful nuclear industry figures brought against freelance journalist Minoru Tanaka in 2012 in connection with his investigative reporting on the nuclear energy industry.

In January of this year, freelance journalist Mari Takenouchi was interrogated by police after she criticized a project by the pro-nuclear organization Ethos for encouraging people to live in areas she believed were contaminated with radioactivity. The NGO responded by making a “criminal contempt” claim against her, according to blog posts and news reports.

Japanese academics also face heavy pressure to self-censor, Jeffery Kingston, coordinator of Asian Studies majors and professor of history at Temple University Japan, told CPJ.

“If you’re a seismologist and openly say, well you know, half of the country’s reactors are based on or adjacent to active fault lines, you will see research funds dried up. There are prominent nuclear critics whose careers have been sidelined,” he said.

Kingston also noted that the new secrecy law would apply to academics and is anticipated to create a “chilling effect” throughout society.

Lamenting the subdued resistance to the passing of the secrecy law, another Japanese freelance journalist, who also requested anonymity for fear of professional repercussions, warned: “Japanese society before war was a dictatorship where the government could kill and torture as they wished, and society was completely closed. As Japanese people are getting older and schools continue to refuse to teach about the full horrors of the war, the kind of traditions and mentality from the prewar era may return.”