It was an unexpected act of protest that shook Japan’s carefully managed media world: Shigeaki Koga, a regular television commentator and fierce critic of the political establishment, abruptly departed from the scripted conversation during a live TV news program to announce that this would be his last day on the show because, as he put it, network executives had succumbed to political pressure for his removal.
“I have suffered intense bashing by the prime minister’s office,” Mr. Koga told his visibly flabbergasted host late last month, saying he had been removed as commentator because of critical statements he had made about Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Later in the program, Mr. Koga held up a sign that read “I am not Abe,” a play on the slogan of solidarity for journalists slain in January at a French satirical newspaper.
Mr. Abe’s efforts have had a chilling effect on coverage at a time when he is pushing ahead with a conservative agenda to dismantle the nation’s postwar pacifist consensus and put forth more positive portrayals of Japan’s World War II-era behavior. Experts warn that muzzling the press makes it easier for the government to make big changes that might not enjoy broad popular support, such as rewriting the pacifist Constitution, or even restarting the nation’s stalled nuclear industry.
While government officials deny that they are trying to curtail free speech, many journalists, commentators and media experts say the government campaign has already tempered coverage of the Abe government. They say that even once feisty outlets like Hodo Station, the news program that had used Mr. Koga as a commentator, are now censoring their own coverage or removing critical voices to avoid drawing official ire.
Some criticism has also fallen on news outlets for rolling over without a fight, particularly since some of these tactics are considered routine in other democracies, like the United States. Many major news organizations have been accused of self-censorship, bringing renewed attention on what experts here say is a weak tradition among the Japanese press of serving as a watchdog on power.
This is a point conceded by many Japanese journalists, who say they have no choice but to get along with a prime minister who appears set to remain in power for several years in the absence of credible opposition. Other journalists say they do not want to suffer the fate of The Asahi Shimbun, a liberal newspaper that came under fierce criticism last fall and seemed to capitulate by cutting back on critical, investigative coverage of sensitive issues like the 2011 Fukushima nuclear accident.
Scholars describe a mood of fear spreading beyond the news media into the broader society, including in education where the Abe government is pressing textbook publishers to adhere more closely to the official line on topics like the 1937 Nanjing massacre and the use of so-called comfort women in wartime military brothels.
Mr. Koga’s accusations offer a rare glimpse of how a formerly hard-hitting news program appears to have toned down its coverage.
While never a favorite of the governing Liberal Democratic Party, Hodo Station felt the pressure rise after a show in late January in which Mr. Koga criticized Mr. Abe’s handling of a hostage crisis in Syria that resulted in the deaths of the two Japanese captives. Mr. Koga and employees of the network that airs Hodo Station, TV Asahi, who asked not to be identified because they were still working there, said that before the program was even over, the network’s political reporters were getting angry calls and emails from political secretaries in the prime minister’s office.
They said the tactic seemed to succeed in turning network reporters against Hodo Station, which has a separate production staff. The reporters and their editors demanded that the program show them its scripts beforehand to ensure that coverage was “balanced,” something Hodo Station’s producer resisted. The government stepped up the pressure against the show again in February, when a top official in the Abe government, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, used an off-record briefing with journalists to speak scathingly of the “completely mistaken” comments about the hostage incident by a “television commentator.”
According to a transcript of the Feb. 24 briefing, Mr. Suga warned that the network might have broken the law by airing the comments. “If it were me, I’d tell them that they violated the broadcast law,” Mr. Suga said, laughing, according to the transcript.
Mr. Koga and others said the transcript had made its way to TV Asahi’s chairman, Hiroshi Hayakawa. “This was a warning to TV Asahi to get rid of me,” Mr. Koga said. “Suga knew this memo would be seen by all major news outlets, and be shown to Chairman Hayakawa.”
Mr. Koga said that that was exactly what happened. In February, after three and a half years of appearing at least once a month as a commentator on Hodo Station, he found out that he would no longer be back on the show. At about the same time, another critical commentator and a producer who had refused to give in to the political pressure were also removed from the show.
Mr. Koga said that move led to his outburst on March 27, his final appearance as commentator.
The network refused interview requests. Its chairman, Mr. Hayakawa, denied in a news conference that political pressure had played a role in what he called a routine decision to change the lineup of commentators. Mr. Suga has told reporters that Mr. Koga’s charges of political pressure were “baseless.”
Still, the governing party is keeping up the pressure, summoning TV Asahi executives two weeks ago to explain how Mr. Koga was allowed to make his accusations on live television. The party explained the summons by saying that those accusations may themselves have violated the broadcast law.
ロシアでさえ政権に批判的な学者や政治家に取材しても「別の人に会うことをお薦めします」なんて当局から言われたことはない。少なくとも私は。日本はどうなっているの？ → 特派員「外務省が記事を攻撃」 独紙記者の告白 http://www.asahi.com/articles/ASH4P6GZ3H4PUHBI02T.html