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.
Still, he retracted only one of his remarks, in which he compared Korean and other “comfort women” forced to work in military brothels during World War II to common prostitutes; his view has been rejected by many foreign historians, but has been espoused by many Japanese nationalists including, in the past, Abe. Even this retraction seemed less than heartfelt: Momii did not say the comparison was mistaken, but merely apologized for expressing a “personal opinion” while speaking in his capacity as NHK president.
The public interrogation, just a week after Momii took office, was a rare public humiliation for the head of a powerful institution whose influential evening news program can still set the tone for Japan’s group of smaller, privately run networks.
NHK is known for everything from children’s shows and high-quality documentaries to its popular samurai dramas. The network also has a storied history. When former emperor Hirohito announced Japan’s surrender after World War II, he did so on NHK’s predecessor. And the network is so entwined with the culture that during the country’s headiest economic era, workers exercised en masse to its iconic morning calisthenics music.
Experts say the newest controversy hurts NHK’s image at a time when one in four Japanese households refuses to pay its monthly viewing fee of US$13 to US$22 because of scandals, including one in 2004 when a producer used company funds to take a mistress to exotic destinations. The broadcaster has also faced widespread distrust for coverage of the 2011 Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant incident that some say complied with government efforts to hide the extent of radiation releases.
The latest accusations of political interference have also become a headache for the Abe government, which has seen its high approval ratings slide after passage of the secrecy law in December last year. Many Japanese journalists saw the law as a way of intimidating would-be government whistle-blowers from speaking with reporters, further hampering the independence of Japanese news media already criticized for being overly cozy with authority.
“This is gross political interference,” said Yasushi Kawasaki, a former NHK political reporter who teaches journalism at Sugiyama Jogakuen University near Nagoya. “The Abe government has stocked NHK’s board of governors with friendly faces in order to neuter its coverage.”
The top government spokesman, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, has denied that the appointments were politically motivated, but said the prime minister chose people whom he knows and trusts.
The previous NHK president, Masayuki Matsumoto, suddenly announced in December last year that he would not seek a new term. Other news media said he was driven out by criticism from the Abe administration for critical coverage of conservative causes, such as nuclear energy and US Marine Corps bases in Okinawa.
This is not the first time that NHK has been criticized for caving in to pressure from Abe. In 2005, a producer said Abe and another Liberal Democratic lawmaker had forced the broadcaster to cut a scene from a program that showed a mock trial in which Hirohito was found guilty of permitting the military to use the comfort women in brothels, according to the Asahi Shimbun, one of Japan’s largest newspapers. NHK officials and Abe denied political pressure was behind the deleted scene.
And last year, Jun Hori, a popular NHK television news announcer, quit after superiors questioned him for more than six hours about a documentary he had made describing nuclear accidents at Fukushima and in the US. It is expected to be shown this month at a small theater in Tokyo.
On Thursday last week, the commentator who more recently severed ties with NHK, Toru Nakakita, said the show on which he had appeared regularly for 20 years had told him not to say anything critical about nuclear power. An NHK spokesman said the demand was made to ensure balanced coverage during the coming election for Tokyo governor, in which nuclear power is an issue.
Hori, who works as a freelance journalist, disagreed on the motive.
“NHK has become a place where it is hard to speak out against authority,” he said. “This is unhealthy for democracy.”