One of the most controversial laws in Japan’s modern history comes into effect this week, and critics say it could have a chilling effect on the public.
The government will designate what it considers highly sensitive in the areas of diplomacy, defence, counter-terrorism and counter-espionage as “special secrets” under the state secrecy law that takes effect on Wednesday.
The law provides harsher punishment for leakers of state secrets, and hawkish Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government said the country needs it to protect sensitive security information provided by the US and other allies.
The law has been condemned at home and abroad because there are no guidelines on what constitutes a secret, and the government enacted it in haste a year ago and without sufficient consultation with legislators, civic groups and foreign experts.
“This law is about as bad as any that a democratic government has considered in the 21st century,” Morton Halperin, who held key national security posts in three US administrations, told the Open Society Foundations in New York.
The UN Human Rights Committee said the law “contains a vague and broad definition of the matters that can be classified as secret, general preconditions for classification and sets high criminal penalties that could generate a chilling effect on the activities of journalists and human rights defenders.”
The law “penalises the press in certain circumstances,” Halperin said. “Government officials would be less willing to talk to journalists. Journalists would be less willing to press government officials.”
Forty-three freelance journalists brought a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the law. They called Prime Minister Abe and Yomiuri newspaper publisher Tsuneo Watanabe as witnesses. Watanabe heads a government-led council on the law.
In Japan, most investigative reports are done by magazines, Internet media and freelance journalists while major news organisations have long been criticised for close relationships with authority figures.
Major media have failed to bring up the controversial law in the runup to the upcoming general election this month, critics say.
Media executives are “indifferent to the public’s right to know,” said Yukinori Yoshitake, a former reporter for major daily newspaper Asahi and one of the plaintiffs.
The law “could certainly put more psychological pressure on journalists than ever,” Yoshitake said.
Some journalists say the law would increase the power of police and make it nearly impossible to cover police scandals and terrorism-related matters.
Kenichi Asano, professor of journalism at Doshisha University in Kyoto, argued the law could have a serious negative impact on wide areas in society such as journalism and academia.
Critics say the passage of the law was another move by Abe to remilitarise Japan, in violation of the pacifist constitution. Article 9 of the charter prohibits the use of force to settle international disputes.
In July, the government decided to allow a greater use of force by the Japanese military overseas by reinterpreting the constitution.
The secrecy law comes into effect at a time when Japan is struggling with fallout from the nation’s worst nuclear disaster at Fukushima in 2011, and also facing fierce opposition to construction of a new US military base in Okinawa, which would take over the functions of a key US air station on the southern island.
The basic principle of democracy is that “information belongs to people, not to a government,” Asano said. A government “is obliged to make it public unless there is a compelling reason” to keep it secret, he added.
“However, many Japanese people lack awareness that sovereign power resides with them,” Asano said.
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