Free and fair? NHK and the Tokyo election

Author: Tessa Morris-Suzuki, ANU

In an age of media transformation, when commercial broadcasters and newspapers are battling for advertising revenue, the impartiality of public broadcasting is more vital than ever to democratic debate. The appointment of a new leadership to Japan’s national broadcaster, NHK, and its coverage of the upcoming Tokyo election vividly illustrate the possible risks of political intervention in public broadcasting.

In December 2013 the Abe government nominated five members to NHK’s twelve-member board. All the new board members were known to be very close to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in their political views, and their appointment raised questions of possible political bias. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga responded to these concerns with the statement that it was ‘natural to ask people whom (the prime minister) puts faith in and admires to assume the posts’. The following month, Katsuto Momii, who has very strong backing from the prime minister, was appointed as the new director general of NHK.

Momii instantly sparked political controversy with comments at his inaugural press conference on 25 January on the ‘comfort women’ issue, a topic on which the prime minister too has made a number of contentious remarks. Momii stated that recruitment of the so-called comfort women (women conscripted into work in wartime military brothels) was not a problem, since similar systems ‘existed everywhere in Europe’ during the war.

On 3 February, a second Abe appointee to the NHK board, Naoki Hyakuta, added fuel to the fire by describing the postwar Tokyo War Crimes trials as designed to ‘fool people’ by concealing the US military’s ‘cruel great massacres’ of Japanese during wartime bombing raids. He went on to add that the 1937–38 Nanjing Massacre of Chinese by the Japanese Imperial Army was a fiction invented for propaganda purposes: ‘The nations of the world ignored this … because it never happened’.

In the midst of international furore, director general Momii admitted that he had been unwise to express his ‘personal views’ on the ‘comfort women’ issue on an official occasion, but the comments on the comfort women have not been retracted. Hyakuta, meanwhile, has loudly proclaimed his right to make such statements in public. The impact of their views on NHK’s broadcasting remains to be seen.

During his inaugural press conference, Momii insisted that NHK under his leadership would maintain the independence required by Japan’s broadcasting law: that promise is already being put to the test with the upcoming gubernatorial election in Tokyo.

The election, to be held on 9 February, is turning into the first real popularity test for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government. The two front-runners are Yoichi Masuzoe, a former minister who has the support of Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party, and former Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa, who is standing on an anti-nuclear power platform. They share the field with far-right candidate Toshio Tamogami (to whom Hyakuta is giving public support), and left-of-centre lawyer Kenji Utsunomiya. The Masuzoe versus Hosokawa contest reflects a wider rivalry between the policies of the Abe government and the stance of those in the liberal/conservative camp who are uneasy about the Abe regime’s economic, political and foreign policy strategy.

A recent poll shows that 70 per cent of the Tokyo electorate favours phasing out nuclear power, but this anti-nuclear sentiment has yet to translate into strong support for Hosokawa. Masuzoe is leading in the polls, and his strategy is to avoid discussion of the nuclear question, and to focus instead on economic issues and on Hosokawa’s Achilles heel — allegations of improper financial dealings which led to his resignation from the prime ministership in 1994.

On 20 January, freelance radio broadcaster Peter Barakan, who hosts programs on several Japanese radio stations including NHK, revealed on air that certain broadcasters — though he did not specify which in particular — had instructed him to avoid raising the issue of nuclear power in his programs during the Tokyo gubernatorial campaign. Soon after, Toru Nakakita, a professor of economics at Toyo University, announced that he was resigning in protest from his role as a commentator on an NHK radio news program, after the program’s director instructed him to scrap planned comments on the cost of nuclear power generation. Nakakita was told that such comments ‘might influence voters’, and were not to be made until after the Tokyo election. Both the Barakan and Nakakita incidents raise questions about NHK’s independence and possible self-censorship in the lead up to the Tokyo election.

Kobe Gakuin University professor and anti-corruption campaigner Hiroshi Kamiwaki has raised questions about possible breaches of the law in the funding of Masuzoe’s political party, the New Renaissance Party, which he founded in 2010. This story was taken up by the Communist Party newspaper Akahata, but has not been mentioned by any of the mainstream media. Masuzoe, who continues to focus his attacks on 20-year-old corruption allegations against Hosokawa, has not responded to the claims, and the major news outlets and broadcasting stations have evidently decided not to refer to them either (or perhaps, not until after the election).

Democratic elections need free and fair media debate, and the independence of public broadcasting is crucial to that debate. Recent events in Japan not only raise questions about the independence of NHK and about possible self-censorship and media bias in the Tokyo election; they also provide food for thought for media watchers in other countries. Public broadcasting can only retain public confidence if it is protected from the eternal temptation of governments to influence its content and restrain its capacity to ask inconvenient questions.

Tessa Morris-Suzuki is an ARC Laureate Fellow based at the School of Culture, History and Language, at the College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.