When Freedom of the Press Means ‘Unfree’

An independent journalist decided earlier this month to travel overseas to the Middle Eastern nation of Yemen, hoping to cross over legally into the war-torn country and report on the dangerous situation there. Saudi Arabia, using military weapons supplied in part by its ally, the United States, has joined the civil war in Yemen, one of the poorest nations in the Arab world, and the result is one of the worst humanitarian crises of our time. This particular journalist decided to take a risk and try to get into Yemen, with the idea of telling the world what is really happening there on the ground. That is what journalists do, after all.

But when the journalist tried to board an airline flight to the Middle East, he was stopped cold at a major international airport in Japan by an unexpected source: the government of his own country. Passport officials invalidated his passport right there at the airport and ordered him to surrender the passport or face the consequences. The journalist was effectively banned from traveling outside of his country and is now prevented from doing his job.

The journalist in question here is Kosuke Tsuneoka, and the oppressive force that barred him from doing his work is his own government — the government of Japan. Japanese press-support organizations, as well as the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and others around the world, joined Tsuneoka in severely criticizing the Japanese government for its heavy-handed action.

This was the second time in recent years that the government under ultra-rightwing Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe has effectively stopped a journalist from traveling overseas to the Middle East and reporting on the truth of what is going on there. The Japanese government, in Tsuneoka’s case, has been mum on exactly why it was necessary for Japan, which counts itself among the community of democratic nations, to blatantly infringe upon Tsuneoka’s rights in this way.

Freedom of the press has been guaranteed as follows in the constitution of Japan since 1947, two years after the end of World War II:

Article 21. Freedom of assembly and association as well as speech, press and all other forms of expression are guaranteed.
No censorship shall be maintained, nor shall the secrecy of any means of communication be violated.

But that important press freedom has never stopped the government of Japan over the ensuing decades from denying such freedom and selectively censoring the news media whenever it wants. And all too often, the Japanese press as an institution has not stood up to the political and corporate powers that be, as a good watchdog press should.

Thus, Japan undoubtedly has hodo no jiyu (freedom of the press) — but then again, it doesn’t. Press freedom in Japan exists in theory, but not always in actual reality.

There’s a word in Japanese that, to me, more aptly describes this murky situation with Japan’s press today: fu-jiyu, or “unfree”. Fu-jiyu is usually a word used in public places and in public transportation modes in Japan to recognize persons who have some physical impairment and cannot move about as freely as so-called normal persons can. In other words, in Japanese society, “unfree” people are disabled persons of some kind or another to whom we are encouraged to give up our train seats or treat respectfully in public spaces.

But it has long seemed to me that Japan’s corporate-driven news media is also fu-jiyu — literally, unfree — and that it is operating in an environment of hodo no fu-jiyu, or unfreedom of the press. And this disability of unfreedom is often the result of self-inflicted wounds on the part of what I often call Japan’s pampered “poodle press”. A poodle press is one that sits comfortably in the laps of political and corporate power, instead of standing guard outside as a watchdog on behalf of the public.

Any conscientious individual journalist in Japan who operates outside those gilded gates of corporate media power in Japan, like the aforementioned independent journalist Kosuke Tsuneoka, may find himself or herself losing a passport or worse. This is what it means to be fu-jiyu, unfree, as a journalist in Japan, under a system in which freedom of the press is, of course, guaranteed as an enshrined right of the nation.

The extreme-rightwing administration of prime minister Abe has never been one to respect freedom of the press in Japan, such as it is. Check out this piece I wrote a few years ago on how members of the press in Japan, post-Fukushima, may be imprisoned for even talking to whistleblowers, and how Japan’s news media establishment has a long tradition of sleeping with its governmental and corporate benefactors when it comes to such things as nuclear power.

It was good to see press-support organizations here in Japan and overseas stand up for Tsuneoka in the wake of his passport being taken away recently. But that kind of lip service is not enough. The outcry has to be much greater if the government of Japan is going to be stopped from doing this type of thing again. News media companies in Japan are going to have to put aside their trivial rivalries and join hands as a single, powerful bloc whenever the government or some other powerful institution in Japan feels like toying with members of the news media. The message needs to be strong and unequivocal: Hands off of press freedoms in Japan.

For my own part, I wholeheartedly applaud and support Japanese journalists, like Tsuneoka and many other colleagues of mine in the media field, who are doing the job journalists are supposed to do — that is, expose and report the truth of what governments do in war zones and other places — and who personally take great risks to break the sound barrier of silence that often surrounds such issues.

More power to Tsuneoka here in Japan, and I hope he fights like hell to get that passport back and then heads straight out to Yemen as he had planned. Only by breaking off those chains of unfreedom, whether self-imposed or restricted from outside, will the free press in Japan ever really live up to its role as a harbinger of the truth and a voice for the voiceless ones, wherever in the world they may be.

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