The passage of a protection of privacy law in May 2003 has endangered press freedom. At the same time, the Koizumi administration has done nothing to reform the kisha club system, which denies foreign and freelance journalists effective access to official information. In a rare occurrence, a journalist was murdered in 2003. At the end of the year, the police had still not established whether the motives for his murder were linked to his investigations into Chinese organised crime.

Parliament adopted a very controversial protection of privacy law in May 2003, after more than a year of debates. It posed a threat to the often sensationalist reporting of some magazines that investigate corruption and sex scandals within Japan's political and economic elites.

Journalist Leo Lewis said sensationalist magazines such as Friday, Shukan Jitsuwa and Shukan Taisho were the only ones in recent years to have exposed scandals which the traditional press would never have dared touch. Freelance reporter Yotaro Ishida criticised the law as an act of revenge: "These magazines have done real harm to the establishment by exposing these scandals, so it is only natural that parliamentarians have found the opportunity to punish them."

The police closed the case on 11 March on the last of their investigations into a wave of violence against the liberal daily Asahi Shimbun – known as "Case 116" – on the expiry of the 15-year deadline for solving the crime. The last attack in the series was the March 1988 bomb blast in the employees car park of the newspaper's regional office in Shizuoka, south of Tokyo. Although an extreme right-wing group claimed responsibility, the police never identified the individuals who carried it out.

In 2002, the police had closed the case on their investigation into the murder of a young Asahi Shimbun reporter, Tomohiro Kojiro, who was gunned down by a masked man on 3 May 1987 inside the headquarters of the newspaper, the most influential one in Japan. The extreme right-wing group Sekihotai claimed responsibility but no arrest was ever made. In view of the lack of success on the part of the police, the newspaper launched its own investigation.

The government carried out no reform of the kisha club system which the European Union had denounced in late 2003 as a serious obstacle to the free flow of information. The long-ruling Liberal Democrat Party and the business establishment have maintained the kisha clubs as a way to keep the main news media's journalists in line. Despite criticism from foreign correspondents, freelance journalists and press freedom organisations, the government and media showed no sign of changing any aspect of this archaic system.

Officially, Japan has about 800 kisha clubs, though some say there are as many as 1,500. Most are tied to public institutions (such as ministries and provincial governments), large firms, political parties and the imperial palace. Their members are more than 12,000 journalists from nearly 160 media affiliated to the Nihon Shimbun Kyokai (Japan Newspaper Publishers and Editors Association).

The first kisha clubs were set up in 1882 by journalists covering parliament. Since then, governments have encouraged them. Each contains about 20 journalists working in major dailies, national TV stations and national news agencies (Kyodo and Jiji). They serve as a pool of journalists working out of a room set aside for them by the institution concerned. Foreign journalists are only admitted to the foreign ministry kisha club.

The Japan Newspaper Publishers and Editors Association rejected the EU's criticism of the kisha clubs in December 2003, claiming that they play an import role in the getting the news out. "The EU's proposals are based on a misunderstanding and on biased and partial information," the association said.

A journalist killed

A journalist was murdered in 2003. But at the end of the year it was still impossible to say if his death was linked to his work.

The body of freelance journalist Satoru Someya was found in Tokyo Bay on 12 September. His hands were bound and his body was wrapped in chains. He had been stabbed eight times in the back and had head injuries. Police initially said his death was very probably linked to his investigation of Chinese criminals in Tokyo's Kabukicho red-light district. His apartment had been broken into and his computer taken. Using the pseudonym Kuragaki Kashiwabara, Someya had published a book in July about the Kabukicho underworld called "Kabukicho Underground". He wrote in the postface: "I got on the wrong side of all of Kabukicho for writing this book. Many foreigners tried to stop me writing it. And many people who gave me information advised not to go too far, and I know what they meant." The police, who assigned 60 officers to the case, later learned that Someya had many debts. He reportedly spent around 5,000 euros in Kabukicho bars in the course of his investigations. Writing in the magazine Playboy, journalist Michael Hoffman said his sources told him Someya also had information about a murder linked to a sado-masochist ring. The body had been wrapped in chains like Someya's. The Tokyo police had not released any conclusions by the end of the year.

Harassment and obstruction

The British daily The Guardian revealed on 24 January 2003 that sports journalist Fred Varcoe was unfairly dismissed by the daily Japan Times on 4 July 2002 as a result of pressure from the South Korean authorities. The South Korean website OhmyNews launched a campaign against Varcoe after he alluded to Seoul prostitutes in a story a few weeks before the start of the football world cup. Varcoe's wife, a South Korean national, received death threats by e-mail. South Korean diplomats went to the headquarters of the Japan Times twice to demand sanctions against Varcoe. Among the reasons the newspaper gave for firing him was "insulting the honour of Korean women." Varcoe filed a complaint against the newspaper's management, which failed to stand up to the South Korean government's pressure.

The lower house of parliament passed a legislative package for the protection of privacy on 6 May. Drafted by the government, it had been debated since April and was very controversial. The government had been forced to rewrite it in 2002 because it was heavily criticised by the media and thrown out in a parliamentary vote. The new version only concerned popular magazines and books and no longer applied to news organisations (newspapers, news agencies, television and radio). The government also amended sections that provided for sentences of up to two years in prison for government employees who leaked confidential information to outsiders, especially journalists.

The upper house asked experts for their views in a hearing on 20 May. Well-known writer Saburo Shiroyama said: "The political class and senior officials reached an agreement that television and newspapers should not come under this bill with the aim of dividing the press... But they put magazine editors under this bill's control. That deprives many journalists and writers of their freedom of expression. That scares me." Japan Magazine Publishers Association spokesman Ryokichi Yama accused the press and political class of collusion: "The government controls TV stations thanks to the broadcasting law. The kisha club system controls print media journalists. Now the government has drafted this bill to control magazines."

Journalists' groups pointed out that the authorities drastically limited the ability of the media to cover entire chunks of political and economic life while Japan did not even have a freedom of information law. Junji Asano, the president of the popular magazine Toyo Keizai and chairman of the Japan Magazine Publishers Association warned of the dangers of the bill and the traditional media's complacency: "Newspapers and television in Japan are viewed by the establishment as belonging to the establishment. Politicians and officials are not afraid to talk to them. But the magazines are seen as an enemy and you can understand why this bill targets us. It is not democratic." The upper chamber passed the bill on 23 May. It remained only for the government to sign it into law.

To protest against the law, opposition parties drafted a counter-proposal aimed at "protecting individual freedom." It would have banned the government and private sector companies from keeping "sensitive" information about the views or beliefs of individuals, their social circumstances, place of birth or ethnic origin. Prime Minister Koizumi rejected the criticism and the opposition proposals.

The Soka Gakkai sect continued to harass independent journalist Masao Okkotsu, the editor of the fortnightly news magazine Forum 21. This sect, which can count on powerful financial and political allies including the Komeito party (a member of the ruling coalition), has on several occasions displayed a lack of tolerance toward Japanese and foreign journalists who have independently investigated its activities. The sect owns some ten publications including the daily Komei Shimbun, with a circulation of two million, but it has brought at least five lawsuits against Okkutsu.


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