TOKYO (Reuters) - Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wants to repeal a Japanese law requiring broadcasters to show impartiality, a step critics fear will lead to sensational reporting and polarise views, just as a similar move has been blamed for doing in the United States.
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 told Reuters.
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 U.S. Fairness Doctrine.
The U.S. Federal Communications Commission decided to repeal the doctrine in 1987 after criticism that it restricted broadcasters’ freedom. The move, finalised 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 U.S. 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 in February, 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.
But 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 in September.
“What Prime Minister Abe wants to do is to advertise his views,” said lawmaker Soichiro Okuno from the opposition Party of Hope.
Television is still a popular and trusted medium in Japan; there is one public broadcaster, NHK. Government data shows the average household spends 168 minutes watching TV per week day, compared with less than 100 minutes online and 10 minutes reading newspapers.
The same survey showed that 70 percent of people believed information in newspapers to be trustworthy, and 66 percent rated television trustworthy. Around 34 percent thought the Internet was a credible source of information.
Conservative politicians have used the broadcast law in recent years to criticise 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.
Reporters Without Borders has criticised Abe’s government for passing a tough secrecy act that critics have said could muzzle media. Japan ranks number 72 in its World Press Freedom Index, behind Malawi and Hungary.
The resignation of some high-profile news readers known for taking a critical look at Abe’s policies in recent years has raised speculation that broadcasters were bowing to pressure from politicians.
“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.
“Now that dealing with ‘fake news’ is becoming a common social issue all around the world, the role of media in providing balanced information is greater than ever,” said Hiroshi Inoue, chairman of The Japan Commercial Broadcasters Association and honorary chairman of TBS Holdings, which owns a major commercial TV channel.
Reporting by Yoshiyasu Shida and Ritsuko Ando; Editing by Gerry Doyle