First, there was the abrupt resignation of the Japanese public broadcasting head accused by governing party politicians of allowing an overly liberal tone to news coverage. Then, his successor drew public ire when he suggested the network would loyally toe the Japanese government line.
Days later, on Thursday last week, a longtime commentator for the network angrily announced that he had resigned after being ordered not to criticize nuclear power ahead of a crucial election, unleashing new criticism.
These are hard times for the broadcaster, NHK, which is widely considered the country’s most authoritative television and radio news source and, like its British equivalent, the BBC, has been troubled by scandal.
However, the current controversies at NHK have also stoked Japanese liberals’ fears about Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his supporters, who critics believe are behind what they call the efforts to muzzle criticism amid a push to impose an expansive right-wing agenda.
The prime minister is pressing for more patriotic textbooks and has pushed through a secrecy law that will allow Japan’s notoriously opaque government to hide more of what it does. The actions come as Japan is mired in an emotional tug-of-war with China and South Korea over their fraught wartime history and recent, potentially explosive, territorial disputes.
“What I am worried about is that NHK will become loyalist media, become the public relations department of the government,” opposition lawmaker Kazuhiro Haraguchi said in unusually harsh criticism in Japan’s National Diet on Friday last week.
NHK is “part of the infrastructure that forms the basis of our democracy,” he said.
The lawmaker made the statements as a parliamentary committee summoned Katsuto Momii, the new president of the broadcaster, to explain remarks at a recent news conference, including his declaration that overseas broadcasts would present the Japanese government’s views on foreign policy without criticism.
“We cannot say left when the government says right,” he said when asked whether NHK would present Japan’s position on territorial and other disputes. He explained that it was “only natural” for the network to follow the Japanese government position.
He also said it should refrain from criticizing the secrecy law, as well as Abe’s visit in December last year to the Yasukuni War Shrine, which angered China and South Korea.
The comments seemed to run counter to the stated mission of the broadcaster, which is funded by fees collected from everyone in Japan who owns a television set, to report the news “without distortion or partisanship.”
While it is nominally independent, the broadcaster’s 12-member governing board is appointed by the Diet, which also approves its budget. The board, which includes four Abe appointees, chooses the president of the network.
The bluntness of the questioning in the Diet reflected the deep suspicion shared by many in the opposition that Abe’s governing Liberal Democratic Party is stocking the governing board with people ready to stifle criticism of his conservative government’s agenda, including playing down Japan’s wartime atrocities.
Momii said during his testimony, broadcast by one of NHK’s own TV channels, that he apologized for what he called misunderstandings.
“It is my intention to protect freedom of speech and unbiased reporting,” he said.