Proposed secrecy act brings press freedom fears in Japan

New law being pushed by prime minister widens definition of state secrets and could remove the public's right to know

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 26 October, 2013, 4:28am
UPDATED : Thursday, 11 June, 2015, 3:58pm

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government is planning a state secrets act that critics say could curtail public access to information on a wide range of issues, including tensions with China and the Fukushima nuclear crisis.

The new law would dramatically expand the definition of official secrets and journalists convicted under it could be jailed for up to five years.

It comes amid a worldwide debate over government secrecy in the wake of the Edward Snowden affair, which on Thursday saw the US ambassador to Germany summoned after claims Washington was spying on Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Japan's harsh state secrecy regime before and during the second world war has long made such legislation taboo, but the new law looks certain to be enacted since Abe's Liberal Democratic Party-led bloc has a big majority in both houses of parliament and the opposition has been in disarray since he came to power last in December.

Critics see parallels between the new law and Abe's drive to revise Japan's US-drafted, post-war constitution to stress citizen's duties over civil rights, part of a conservative agenda that includes a stronger military and recasting Japan's wartime history with a less apologetic tone.

"There is a demand by the established political forces for greater control over the people," said Lawrence Repeta, a law professor at Meiji University. "This fits with the notion that the state should have broad authority to act in secret."

Abe says the new law, a draft of which was approved by his cabinet yesterday and later submitted to parliament, is vital to his plan to set up a US-style National Security Council to oversee security policies and co-ordinate among ministries.

New laws are "a pressing issue because sharing intelligence with other countries is only possible on the premise that secrets will be kept", chief government spokesman Yoshihide Suga told a press conference.

The government wants the new confidentiality law to be passed by lawmakers "as soon as possible", Suga added.

Suga said the change was important "for the effective functioning" of a Japanese version of the US National Security Council that Abe has said he wants to establish to integrate information linked to diplomacy and security.

Outside Abe's official residence, several dozen protesters gathered in the rain in a last- minute appeal against the move.

"We are resolutely against this bill. You could be subject to punishments just by revealing what needs to be revealed to the public," one protester said.

Legal and media experts say the law, which would impose harsh penalites on those who leak secrets or try to obtain them, is too broad and vague, making it impossible to predict what would come under its umbrella. The lack of an independent review process leaves wide latitude for abuse, they say.

"Basically, this bill raises the possibility that the kind of information about which the public should be informed is kept secret eternally," said Tadaaki Muto, a lawyer and member of a task force on the bill at the Japan Federation of Bar Associations.

"Under the bill, the administrative branch can set the range of information that is kept secret at its own discretion."

Media watchdogs fear the law would seriously hinder journalists' ability to investigate official misdeeds and blunders, including the collusion between regulators and utilities that led to the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster.

An investigation by an independent parliamentary panel found that collusion between regulators and the nuclear power industry was a key factor in the failure to prevent the meltdowns at Tokyo Electric Power Co's tsunami-hit Fukushima plant in March 2011, and the government and the utility remain the focus of criticism for their handling of the ongoing crisis.

Tepco has often been accused of concealing information about the crisis. In July, it finally admitted to massive leaks of radiation-contaminated water into the Pacific Ocean after months of media reports and denials by the utility.

"This may very well be Abe's true intention - cover-up of mistaken state actions regarding the Fukushima disaster and/or the necessity of nuclear power," said Sophia University political science professor Koichi Nakano.

Legal experts fear a broad impact on the media's ability to act as a watchdog. "It seems very clear that the law would have a chilling effect on journalism in Japan," said Meiji University's Repeta.

Critics have dismissed as political window-dressing the addition of references to freedom of the press and the right to know, which were added to the bill at the insistence of the LDP's junior coalition partner, the New Komeito party.

The LDP has previously sought unsuccessfully to enact such a state secrets law but impetus was renewed after a Japanese Coast Guard official posted video online in 2010 showing a collision between a Chinese fishing boat and a Japanese patrol vessel near the disputed Diaoyu Islands, known as the Senkakus in Japan. The government, then led by the now-opposition Democratic Party, wanted to keep the video under wraps for fear of inflaming tense Sino-Japanese relations.

The new legislation would create four categories of "special secrets" that should be kept classified - defence, diplomacy, counter-terrorism and counter-espionage.

Top officials in all ministries - rather than only defence officials as currently - will be able to designate state secrets for five years, renewable in five-year increments and potentially indefinitely, although cabinet approval would be required after 30 years.

"As things stand, the state gets a more or less free hand in deciding what constitutes a state secret and it can potentially keep things secret forever," Nakano said.

Currently, only defence secrets are subject to such classification. Security experts say that makes defence officials reluctant to share classified data with other ministries, a prerequisite for the functioning of the planned National Security Council.

Under the new law, public servants and others cleared for access to such information could get up to 10 years in prison for leaks. At present, they face one year imprisonment except for defence officials, who are subject to up to five years in prison or 10 years if the data came from the US military.

Journalists and others in the private sector who encourage such leaks could get up to five years in jail if they used "grossly inappropriate" means.

Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse



  • The legislation aims to protect critical national secrets in the fields of defence, diplomacy, counter-terrorism and counter-espionage from leaks by introducing harsher punishments.
  • The bill comes when Japan, facing with a rapidly growing China and unpredictable North Korea, is expanding its defence ties with the United States, its closest ally.
  • Civil servants and others with access to classified information would face up to 10 years in prison if they leak "special secrets" designated under the law. That compares with the current punishment of up to one year in prison for central government employees and up to five years for defence officials or up to 10 years if the classified defence information in question originates from the United States.
  • The bill stipulates that freedom of the press and journalists' information-gathering activities should be duly respected, and that reporters' news-gathering activities are deemed proper conduct as long as they are aimed at serving the common good, not in violation of laws and not "grossly inappropriate".
  • If journalists have obtained "special secrets" through improper means not allowed under the law, they would be subject to up to five years in prison.
  • Cabinet ministers would have the power to designate classified information that needs special protection under the law as "special secrets".
  • The "special secret" status would remain valid for five years and could be renewed at the end of the five-year period. Cabinet approval would be necessary to keep the status for more than 30 years.