Public officials must avoid activities that could raise suspicion of collusion

Didn’t the frequent wining and dining of ministry officials by private companies lead to cozy relationships between the ministry and certain companies? The government must sincerely investigate the impact on broadcasting and telecommunications regulation and fulfill its accountability.

Shinya Nakajima, the president of Tohokushinsha Film Corp, a company involved in broadcasting, and NTT Corp. President Jun Sawada were summoned to the Diet as unsworn witnesses and faced questioning at a meeting of the House of Councillors Budget Committee.

The hospitality scandal involving Tohokushinsha, for which Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s eldest son works, has led to revelations that senior officials of the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry have been wined and dined separately by the two companies on several occasions in violation of the ethics code based on the National Public Service Ethics Law.

If a public servant accepts hospitality from a company with vested interests, it could lead to suspicions of a cozy relationship or collusion. The communications ministry should take seriously the fact that rule violations have become common practice.

At a question-and-answer session, opposition parties pursued the fact that Tohokushinsha had violated a foreign capital regulation under the Broadcasting Law. The focus of the questioning was whether the regulation has been distorted by the hospitality campaign. Regrettably, the issue was not sufficiently clarified.

The Broadcasting Law stipulates that foreign investment in a broadcasting operator must be less than 20%. However, foreign investment in Tohokushinsha was said to have exceeded 20% when the company applied for certification for a satellite broadcasting operation in 2016.

The foreign capital regulation is aimed at preventing public opinion from being swayed through foreign investments in broadcasting operations that use public radio waves. Internal Affairs and Communications Minister Ryota Takeda’s announcement that the ministry would revoke the satellite broadcasting license of Tohokushinsha was inevitable.

Nakajima explained that it was a simple mistake by the person in charge. The ministry bears significant responsibility for accepting Tohokushinsha’s application without any doubts and overlooking the violation.

There is a discrepancy between the two sides’ claims over how they responded when they became aware of the problem in 2017. Nakajima said that he reported the matter to the ministry official in charge, but a director general at the ministry said that the official in charge at that time does not remember receiving the information.

Why is there such a discrepancy in the perception of the facts? It would be a problem if the ministry was aware of the violation but left it unattended. This must not end up becoming a fruitless back-and-forth dispute. It is important to investigate the circumstances of the case in detail and clarify the facts.

Opposition parties also raised the issue of NTT executives having dinner with communications ministers and state ministers in the past. The ministerial code of conduct prohibits Cabinet ministers and others from receiving hospitality from related businesses.

Sawada apologized for “causing so much trouble,” but stressed that there had been no business-related requests.

It is possible for Cabinet members to exchange opinions with relevant parties and reflect them in their policymaking as long as it does not involve catering to vested interests, but they must strictly refrain from activities that could raise public suspicion.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on March 16, 2021.