Governor questions media privilege in Japan
Posted by ampontan on Thursday, May 17, 2007
FORMER AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland once advised, “Never get into an argument with people who buy ink by the barrel”, but it seems as if former funnyman turned politician Higashikokubaru Hideo, now the Governor of Miyazaki Prefecture, might not have heard the advice—and might have ignored it if he had.
It’s the practice for prefectural governors in Japan to hold regularly scheduled news conferences, with the timing in each prefecture ranging from once a week to once a month. The Miyazaki governors give press conferences once every two weeks, and at the one held three weeks ago, Mr. Higashikokubaru wondered aloud whether it was really necessary to keep to a strict schedule. After all, he noted, sometimes there is just isn’t anything to talk about.
Because his mid-life career change from a goofy comic in Beat Takeshi’s circle of acolytes to a serious politician in an agricultural prefecture far from any big city or big media action has been so striking, the governor’s every word and deed is attracting national media attention. And when a politician rocks the media’s boat, it goes without saying that it attracts even more attention.
Last week, Gov. Higashikokubaru held his first news conference since his opening salvo, and of course the media came loaded for bear. The governor quickly fired off a few shots of his own, however. He offered the novel idea that it would be more efficient to hold press conferences only when there was something to talk about. He thought it wasn’t necessary to stick to a regular schedule if nothing important had happened.
The media response was predictable. There is no more self-important and self-righteous professional group than reporters—with the possible exception of attorneys and Muslim clerics—and none more likely to overreact in its own defense, so of course they rose to the bait. Anyone reading this could have scripted what they said next. “Press conferences are necessary for the disclosure of information that fulfills the prefectural citizens’ right to know.”
But the governor had saved his best shot for last. The comment that drew all the headlines in the newspaper the next day was, “Kisha clubs aren’t sacred either.”
Well, that’s guaranteed to get any Japanese reporter to snap to attention. If you’re unfamiliar with kisha clubs (literally, reporters’ clubs), here’s an excellent overview by the Japan Media Review. (For the official view in support of kisha clubs, try this site by the Nihon Shimbun Kyokai.)
The kisha clubs are press clubs affiliated with every important governmental organization in the country. They originally served the worthwhile purpose of enabling reporters to act as a group to force the government to divulge information. The impetus for their formation was the government’s refusal in 1890 to allow reporters to cover the first session of the Diet.
Now, however, the clubs are more likely to stifle information than to facilitate its disclosure and distribution. Critics charge that club members merely regurgitate government press releases. Reporters cannot attend press conferences unless they are press club members, and this requires a considerable expense of time and effort. This hinders not only the access of foreign journalists to the news; it also limits the access of freelance journalists and reporters for trade journals in Japan. The European Commission calls them barriers to the “free trade of information”, and others have claimed that they constitute “information cartels”.
But the governor was not playing the role of brash radical. He is a former show business personality, after all, and a politician basing his appeal on his answerability to the citizens. He knows better than anyone the media’s importance for getting his message out. Neither is he calling—yet—for the abolition of kisha clubs. He stated at the press conference (my translation):
I fully recognize the importance of the media…(but) I am raising the issue of whether it wouldn’t be a good idea to consider if the current system of kisha clubs and regularly scheduled press conferences is the best (approach) nationwide. I was not suggesting that press conferences be eliminated or the clubs abolished.
Mr. Higashikokubaru seems to have two reasons for his challenges to the media. First, he has said on several occasions that he hopes to institute local government reform in Miyazaki Prefecture and then extend it to local governments nationwide. As part of this overall reform, he thinks the entire approach of government-media interaction at the local level should be reexamined, reformed as required, and implemented on a national scale.
It is not surprising that the governor is not particularly impressed with the mass media. Try this post to see how many ways the media covered one short speech he gave at the Foreign Press Club in Tokyo—not one of the reports is even remotely close to complete and all of them are so inadequate as to verge on the incompetent.
The second reason is not so altruistic. Since he was elected governor in January, reporters have come down from Tokyo to try to cover his press conferences, but haven’t been admitted because they aren’t members of the local kisha club. It would be difficult for the governor to promote his reforms elsewhere in the country without national media attention, and the kisha club system hinders his efforts.
There is no question that the kisha clubs do in fact impede the right of the Japanese people to know, rather than ensure that right, as they once did. There’s no better illustration than this local example from Saga Prefecture.
The prefectural governor is Furukawa Yasushi, who was recently reelected to a second term. Mr. Furukawa has a reputation as a young reformer, so he’s popular with the citizens. About one year into his first term, the prefecture bought a new official vehicle for the governor’s use. The Nishinippon Shimbun, a Fukuoka-based regional newspaper, reported that though the new van cost about US$90,000, vans of the same model could be easily purchased for about US$50,000. They also revealed that the governor’s new wheels had a lot of extras, including a DVD player, and asked whether any of them were necessary in a vehicle bought with public funds.
The governor protested that the vehicle couldn’t have been purchased at a cheaper price, and there was nothing luxurious about it at all. The matter ended there, and it didn’t hurt the governor at the polls.
But the Nishinippon Shimbun, though a member of the kisha club, is not the most widely read newspaper in the prefecture. That honor goes to the local Saga Shimbun. Not long after reading the story in the regional newspaper, I asked a reporter for the local paper (which I don’t read) what he thought about the issue of the governor’s new car.
He had no idea what I was talking about. He didn’t even know that the governor had bought a new car, that there was a potential problem with the purchase, and didn’t think it had been reported in his newspaper at all.
Mr. Furukawa, it should be noted, recently increased the frequency of his own regularly scheduled press conferences from one every two weeks to once a week. His stated objective was improving communication with the citizens.
The prefectural citizens’ right to know? I suspect it’s more like the prefectural citizens’ right to know the story only as the media guild presents it, and that clique’s desire to maintain their monopoly on the sources of information by staying on the good side of the local authorities.
And heaven help anyone who tries to buck the system. The ones running the show are the ones buying printer’s ink by the barrel, after all.