clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

A really worrying video about press freedom in Japan

Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Japan's media has had a rough couple of years under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Japan's state secret law, passed in 2013, imposes harsh penalties on people for leaking classified information — and could even be used to imprison reporters who ask about secrets.

"The Abe government has largely succeeded in emasculating the Japanese media," Koichi Nakano, a professor at Tokyo's Sophia University, told the Financial Times this summer, in explaining how the government had suppressed news of Abe being heckled at an event in Okinawa. This and other developments, according to the newspaper, had "stoked fears about press freedom in Japan."

Those fears have been growing in the past few years. Jake Adelstein, an American reporter who has long worked in Japan, recently gave a TEDxHaneda talk, embedded here, showing just how bad things are getting for Japanese media — and why he thinks it's happening.

To begin with, according to Adelstein, the nature of Japan's media landscape makes it particularly vulnerable to censorship.

Japan has a media credentialing scheme, called the press club system, which gives certain recognized major media outlets special access and reporting privileges. "Magazines, or small newspapers, or internet broadcasting sites that might report something interesting don't get a fair shot," he explains.

Moreover, Japanese companies aren't shy about threatening to pull ads over unfavorable coverage. "If you write the wrong things about the wrong company, you might not have enough money to pay for your magazine," Adelstein says.

For example Tokyo Electric Power Company, the company responsible for the Fukushima reactor, has the country's 10th-largest advertising budget. But it also has a monopoly on electric service in Tokyo, so it theoretically shouldn't need to advertise. The point of all the spending, according to Adelstein, is for Tokyo Electric Power to buy the press's loyalty.

(Jake Adelstein/TED)

Conditions for the media have worsened under the government of Shinzo Abe, who became prime minister in late 2012 (he had also served for a year from 2006 to 2007).

The most infamous Abe initiative is the 2013 State Secret Act. This law criminalizes even asking questions about state secrets, regardless of whether you know it's actually secret. "If it's a state secret, and I ask about it, whether I know it's a state secret or not," Adelstein says, "I'm instigating a leak. That's five years in jail for me."

Watch Adelstein's whole TEDx talk above to learn more.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.