NY Times Asia Pacific  May 28, 2009

In Reporting a Scandal, the Media Are Accused of Just Listening

TOKYO | When Tokyo prosecutors arrested an aide to a prominent opposition political leader in March, they touched off a damaging scandal just as the entrenched Liberal Democratic Party seemed to face defeat in coming elections. Many Japanese cried foul, but you would not know that from the coverage by Japanfs big newspapers and television networks.

Instead, they mostly reported at face value a stream of anonymous allegations, some of them thinly veiled leaks from within the investigation, of illegal campaign donations from a construction company to the opposition leader, Ichiro Ozawa. This month, after weeks of such negative publicity, Mr. Ozawa resigned as head of the opposition Democratic Party.

The resignation, too, provoked a rare outpouring of criticism aimed at the powerful prosecutors by Japanese across the political spectrum, and even from some former prosecutors, who seldom criticize their own in public. The complaints range from accusations of political meddling to concerns that the prosecutors may have simply been insensitive to the arrestfs timing.

But just as alarming, say scholars and former prosecutors, has been the failure of the news media to press the prosecutors for answers, particularly at a crucial moment in Japanfs democracy, when the nation may be on the verge of replacing a half-century of Liberal Democratic rule with more competitive two-party politics.

gThe mass media are failing to tell the people what is at stake,h said Terumasa Nakanishi, a conservative scholar who teaches international politics at Kyoto University. gJapan could be about to lose its best chance to change governments and break its political paralysis, and the people donft even know it.h

The arrest seemed to confirm fears among voters that Mr. Ozawa, a veteran political boss, was no cleaner than the Liberal Democrats he was seeking to replace. It also seemed to at least temporarily derail the opposition Democrats ahead of the elections, which must be called by early September. The partyfs lead in opinion polls was eroded, though its ratings rebounded slightly after the selection this month of a new leader, Yukio Hatoyama, a Stanford-educated engineer.

Japanese journalists acknowledge that their coverage so far has been harsh on Mr. Ozawa and generally positive toward the investigation, though newspapers have run opinion pieces criticizing the prosecutors. But they bridle at the suggestion that they are just following the prosecutorsf lead, or just repeating information leaked to them.

gThe Asahi Shimbun has never run an article based solely on a leak from prosecutors,h the newspaper, one of Japanfs biggest dailies, said in a written reply to questions from The New York Times.

Still, journalists admit that their coverage could raise questions about the Japanese news mediafs independence, and not for the first time. Big news organizations here have long been accused of being too cozy with centers of power.

Indeed, scholars say coverage of the Ozawa affair echoes the positive coverage given to earlier arrests of others who dared to challenge the establishment, like the iconoclastic Internet entrepreneur Takafumi Horie.

gThe news media should be watchdogs on authority,h said Yasuhiko Tajima, a journalism professor at Sophia University in Tokyo, gbut they act more like authorityfs guard dogs.h

While news media in the United States and elsewhere face similar criticisms of being too close to government, the problem is more entrenched here. Cozy ties with government agencies are institutionalized in Japanfs so-called press clubs, cartel-like arrangements that give exclusive access to members, usually large domestic news outlets.

Critics have long said this system leads to bland reporting that adheres to the official line. Journalists say they maintain their independence despite the press clubs. But they also say government officials sometimes try to force them to toe the line with threats of losing access to information.

Last month, the Tokyo Shimbun, a smaller daily known for coverage that is often feistier than that in Japanfs large national newspapers, was banned from talking with Tokyo prosecutors for three weeks after printing an investigative story about a governing-party lawmaker who had received donations from the same company linked to Mr. Ozawa.

The newspaper said it was punished simply for reporting something the prosecutors did not want made public. gCrossing the prosecutors is one of the last media taboos,h said Haruyoshi Seguchi, the paperfs chief reporter in the Tokyo prosecutorsf press club.

The news mediafs failure to act as a check has allowed prosecutors to act freely without explaining themselves to the public, said Nobuto Hosaka, a member of Parliament for the opposition Social Democratic Party, who has written extensively about the investigation on his blog.

He said he believed Mr. Ozawa was singled out because of the Democratic Partyfs campaign pledges to curtail Japanfs powerful bureaucrats, including the prosecutors. (The Tokyo prosecutors office turned down an interview request for this story because The Times is not in its press club.)

Japanese journalists defended their focus on the allegations against Mr. Ozawa, arguing that the public needed to know about a man who at the time was likely to become Japanfs next prime minister. They also say they have written more about Mr. Ozawa because of a pack-like charge among reporters to get scoops on those who are the focus of an investigation.

gTherefs a competitive rush to write as much as we can about a scandal,h said Takashi Ichida, who covers the Tokyo prosecutors office for the Asahi Shimbun. But that does not explain why in this case so few Japanese reporters delved deeply into allegations that the company also sent money to Liberal Democratic lawmakers.

The answer, as most Japanese reporters will acknowledge, is that following the prosecutorsf lead was easier than risking their wrath by doing original reporting.

The news media can seem so unrelentingly supportive in their reporting on investigations like that into Mr. Ozawa that even some former prosecutors, who once benefited from such favorable coverage, have begun criticizing them.

gIt felt great when I was a prosecutor,h said Norio Munakata, a retired, 36-year veteran Tokyo prosecutor. gBut now as a private citizen, I have to say that I feel cheated.h


Reference: Japanese translation