Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wants to repeal a law requiring broadcasters to show impartiality, a step critics fear will lead to sensational reporting and polarize views, just as a similar move has been blamed for doing in the US.
Abe’s government has drafted changes to Japan’s broadcast law and plans to include them in reform proposals as early as May, laying the groundwork for future legislation, three government sources said.
The sources, who asked for anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter, said the draft includes repealing the law’s Article 4, which requires license holders to show contrasting political views and is considered Japan’s version of the US Fairness Doctrine.
The US Federal Communications Commission decided to repeal the doctrine in 1987 after criticism that it restricted broadcasters’ freedom. The move, finalized in 2011, is widely credited with helping give rise to politically charged radio talk shows and news programs.
“Without having these safeguards, media outlets become more susceptible to market forces,” said Victor Pickard, associate professor of communication at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. “The US could serve as a cautionary tale.”
Abe has said he wants to overhaul the broadcast law to put traditional television channels on equal footing with online media, which are not restricted by Article 4. The law does not apply to print media.
In a parliament session last month, he cited his appearance on AbemaTV, a livestreaming service operated by Internet advertising agency CyberAgent and TV Asahi that despite its name has no financial or other links to Abe.
During his appearance, he was allowed to air his views without the need for contrasting views to be presented.
“As the division between traditional and digital media become meaningless, we should make for bold revisions to broadcast businesses to make the best use of airwaves, which are a public asset,” Abe said.
However, critics see it as a more sinister move, saying Abe wants to stack airwaves with pro-government messaging to bolster his popularity and push through a controversial revision of Japan’s pacifist constitution.
He is facing pressure over a suspected cover-up of a cronyism scandal, which could dash his hopes of winning a third three-year term in a leadership election scheduled for September.
“What Prime Minister Abe wants to do is to advertise his views,” opposition Party of Hope lawmaker Soichiro Okuno said.
Conservative politicians have used the broadcast law in recent years to criticize television broadcasters as biased against them.
Sanae Takaichi, a member of Abe’s conservative Liberal Democratic Party and former minister of internal affairs and communications, said in 2016 that television stations could be shut down if they repeatedly showed political bias.
“We have a bit of a twisted situation... You have a government that’s saying: ‘Here’s more freedom, let’s do away with this restriction,’” said Kozo Nagata, who teaches media and sociology studies at Musashi University.
“But you cannot just tweak Article 4 without understanding the history behind the law,” he said, referring to its original aim of preventing media from being used as a propaganda machine.
Most broadcasters have opposed the move.
In other news, an opinion poll released yesterday found that nearly half of voters believe Abe should quit to take responsibility over a cronyism scandal and cover-up that have sent his support sliding.
Suspicions have arisen about a sale of state-owned land at a huge discount to a nationalist school operator with ties to Abe’s wife, Akie.
According to a survey covered by the liberal Asahi Shimbun over the weekend, 48 percent of respondents said Abe and his government should quit, compared to 39 percent who said that was not necessary.
Those who said they supported Abe slid to 32.6 percent, down 11.7 percentage points from a month ago, while those who said they did not rose 13.2 percentage points to 54.9 percent.
No margin of error was given for the poll, in which 66.7 percent of 1,606 people contacted responded.
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