Freelance, online reporting discouraged on nuclear threat

By Madeline Earp/CPJ Senior Research Associate on April 14, 2011 6:42 PM ET

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.


Without real freedom of the press how can any reporting and information really be trusted. The government needs to understand that if the people trusted the existing news structure then rumors and distrust would not cause massive hysteria. People would know they can trust the news from mainstream sources. But unfortunately Japan continues with their old boy networks and big business ties that all to often feel it is in the best interest of the people to be kept in the dark on certain matters they deem bad for society to know. Japan needs real freedom of the press. The press helps to keep a country free of white collar crime.

I am a french journalist with personal interest in the crisis. Since 7 or 8 days I experienced great difficulties in finding reliable informations. Some of the forums and blogs I frequented since the begining of the crisis have been

This is very sad to see - before the quake, the DPJ seemed to be making a bit of progress in opening up to news organizations beyond the Vast Corporate-Media-Bureaucrat Conspiracy.

It was also good to see the TEPCO press conferences live on u-stream, with a very healthy back-channel. Sometimes you could see the journalists in the room (not sure what organization they were from) pick information out of the back-channel, much to the bewilderment of the unfortunate TEPCO PR people who obviously hadn't expected a crowd-sourced interrogation.

"In Crisis, Japan Bars Freelancers" Really?

I'm a staff correspondent for a Japanese newspaper now stationed in Cairo but have been able to monitor, on and off, some press conferences at the Prime Minister's Office/TEPCO/NISA on Ustream. I have to add that this is thanks to the efforts by Mr. Yasumi Iwakami, a freelance journalist who's arranging the online broadcasting. And I did watch freelancers, foreign reporters as well as Japanese MSM reporters asking questions at those PCs after 3/11. Some of those questions were pretty tough, at least by my standard.

I've also been checking on reports by major Japanese newspapers on the Japanese government's & TEPCO's handling of the nuclear disaster. They are rather critical of those institutions in my opinion. Based on those reports, as well as what I saw on Ustream and my personal experience, I cannot really see a situation like "the local media's habitual allegiance to officials who arrange press conferences and companies that buy advertising." I guess there are cases like that, but I don't really think it's the norm.

I don't know if Ms. Earp talked to Kisha Club guys in Japan in putting this particular piece together, but if she didn't I'd appreciate if she could introduce their views too in her future articles on the problems of the Japanese media environment.

Before I say anything, with regards to one of the 'examples' put forth in the article about Japanese media not writing about certain events, I found this article in the Mainichi about the Telecom Services Association release of 8 April.

It is all too easy to say, "The media does not report on this and that," but the question is, "Really?" Also, logically, even if there had been an absence of articles, is it not conjecture to conclude that that's because Japanese media is bought by advertisers? Perhaps the reporters are just lazy or simply not good enough, rather than there being some ulterior motive?

That said, I used to be a Kisha Club reporter myself with a national daily. From my experience, I beg to differ with the article's statement, "But the local media's habitual allegiance to officials who arrange press conferences and companies that buy advertising makes it hard to tell". You say "local media" in one fell swoop, but are you talking about print? Broadcast? If print, national (zenkokushi), local (chihoshi), magazines? If you're talking about broadcast media, are you talking about NHK? Or commercial outlets (minpo)? Surely you're aware that all of these media organizations have different corporate mores and different corporate structures, the relationship between editorial control and advert revenue are quite different in each organization (cf. the difference between NYT and Fox News).

In my own humble experience, within the national daily I belonged to, editorial control reigned supreme over the business section, no one from the business section was telling reporters on the ground not to write anything. If there was such pressure within the company, my bosses prevented that from reaching reporters on the ground.

The article states, "The system can foster docility among reporters willing to forgo asking critical questions in exchange for continued access, local journalists told us." Of course it CAN, but the question is has it? And to what extent? Are there concrete examples, or is this mere guilt by association? I've seen pretty critical articles in some of the national dailies, by the way.

I understand there are many Japanese media organizations that are more vulnerable to advertisers than some national dailies. That is where the finger should point, not a broad stab at something so varied as the "Japanese media."

I'm not a journalist, just a Japanese citizen.

Though I don't think TEPCO has been honest or sincere, and I believe there has been more for TEPCO and our government to tell us, I doubt if the problem is about press freedom.

The TELESA's removal of the "prohibited information" mentioned in the article is about a photograph of a dead body. I have no idea exactly why the service provider "removed" the photo but it looks like it's the provider's policy (it's usual that graphic images are prohibited. Look at's policy). Of other three cases reported on the web page linked in the article, only one was "removed" from the net, not by the service provider, but by the content owner. The "removed" info was about the "earthquake weapon" - no relation to TEPCO.

Mr Uesugi tries to convince us that he has lost his slot because he "speaks out against TEPCO". Well, the other presenter of the programme said the regrettable move was decided before the 3.11 quake, and that it was because of his "untrue statements" regarding the DPJ's and the broadcaster's handling of an allegation he had made unrelated to TEPCO. Her comments (in Japanese) can be read at:

And if you are cautious enough, you've seen quite an amount of "bad" news for TEPCO reported in our national mainstream media over the years; the news that they buried or tried to bury the bad news.

Some examples are on Wikipedia (in Japanese):

I'm not saying their coverage is sufficient, but it's not simply true that nothing bad was reported at all. Some Japanese people like to say Japan is like China, or pre-revolution Egypt, but it's only rhetorical. Or they don't have a clue about the freedom in China or Mubarak's Egypt.

Some commenters are missing the point: Barring freelancers from having access is an important press freedom issue no matter the country. In Japan, the Kisha Club system and its dampening effect on certain coverage is well documented. Also well documented is the current reluctance of the government and the utlity to provide candid and timely information on the crises.

Taken together, that's a very troubling situation. The vantage point that freelancers provide is essential in Japan's time of crisis.

You are missing the context, i.e., what we are talking about.

It's true "foreign and freelance journalists" are barred from the Kisha Club, and it is a serious problem, but we are talking about TEPCO press conferences, aren't we?

So, are freelancers barred from TEPCO pressers? Aren't some of the reporters on the Ustream freelancers? I keep getting amazed by the effectiveness of some of their questions. Mr Uesugi himself is not barred. He was at this TEPCO presser, along with other freelance journalists, on 27 March for instance:

Hi, just dropped by to let you know that I blogged about this in Japanese:

FYI, Takashi Uesugi's organisation, FPAJ, released this statement, "Tentatively discontinued requesting to the Government", on March 16, almost a month before this blog. (in English)

They say:
"... foreign media have been admitted to participate in the press conference of the Chief Cabinet Secretary. Also the representative of Internet News Association of Japan was admitted to participate in the conference at our request starting tomorrow.

Even though it is minimum participation as a representative, however, internet and foreign media were admitted to participate to acquire the official information from the Government.
We, FPAJ, decided to discontinue our request because we think our request has been partially admitted."

Things have been fast moving since 11 March. Uesugi's interview with the New Yorker on their 28 March issue (published on 21 March) was outdated in mid-April, as the interview itself seems to have taken place a few days after the quake, judging from how the Kashima driver speaks about the gas shortage.

I have no idea when Time Out Tokyo talked with him, but I found that their interview, published 1 April, did not reflect the latest developments when I first read it (2 April probably).

Regarding the questions about the system of the media allocation at the governmental press conferences, please refer to the latest quote of the PR at Prime Minister of Japan and His Cabinet.

As for TEPCO, yes, the conferences have turned into a fair through the endeavors.

However, press conference system of Cabinet seems to be intricated politically.

A staff at international PR section of Prime Minister of Japan and His Cabinet, on April 14, answered that, to foreign press, as a principle, the administrative office will take in charge of briefing what Japan prime minister, Chief Cabinet Secretary and others said. However, Yukio Edano, the Chief Cabinet Secretary, acutally attended the press conference two days ago though it was only once and the deputy chief cabinet secretary appeared so far twice, a staff explained.

All foreign journalists have to get registered beforehand and be examined for attending the briefing. But, for security reason, it does not mean that the government grants all foreign media.

Regarding freelancer and internet media, for instance, the press conference of Edano, chief cabinet secretary, it is opened once a week on Friday afternoon for them ; Edano holds press conferences twice a day, which suggests 10 times a week overall. But, they need to make a registration beforehand.

Ryusaku Tanaka, a scandel crusader, who exposed the TEPCO Chairman's nice treatment trip to China with a group of Media OBs in Study Session on March 11,is keen on attending all governmental press conferences, but complained, "From the beginning, there are too much restrictions to enter press confrence. Limit on the number of journalists who are granted to attend. I can attend only once a week for a press conference of a cabinet chief!".

Amid the aftermath of the traumatic disaster swirled by the tsunami, earthquake and radiation problems, Japan government on April 1st, submitted the bill of computer monitoring law which authorizes National Police Agency and Prosecutor’s office to track down the malicious information on internet and even expose individuals who prevail the unlawful message or data without passage of the grant of court jury. Furthermore, Naoto-Kan Cabinet adapted it at a Cabinet meeting. The online monitoring will be likely to be driven to futher extent.

When this article was written in April, it wasn't in action but the government machine has started working.

Check out the website below for the "guidelines for Internet sites deemed to be spreading false rumors" mentioned in the article. This is not a leak, but an official announcement at the METI:
(in Japanese)

Scroll down to the bottom, find the PDF links, and download the Number 3 file (shiyousho). Get it translated if needed and read it. It's a gem.

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