Identify and Address Issues with Interpretation of Political Fairness

The freedom of expression guaranteed by the Constitution should be respected as much as possible, and the government must refrain from casually interfering with broadcasters. Broadcasters, for their part, need to be mindful of producing accurate and impartial programs.

A furor has erupted over internal documents produced by the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry during the Cabinet of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe concerning the interpretation of “political fairness” as stipulated in Article 4 of the Broadcasting Law.

The documents comprise records of ministerial affairs from 2014, when Yosuke Isozaki, who served as a special adviser to the prime minister during the Abe administration, requested an explanation about the interpretation of the law from the ministry, to 2015, when then communications minister Sanae Takaichi provided a “supplementary explanation” to the Diet.

The government has traditionally interpreted whether political fairness is being maintained based on a broadcaster’s overall programming, not by focusing on the content of a single program. Isozaki stressed that “there could be cases in which political fairness is lacking even in a single program.”

Offering a supplementary explanation in the Diet in 2015 after consultations between the Prime Minister’s Office and the ministry, Takaichi said, “Even in a single program, if the content is extreme, [the program makers] cannot have maintained political impartiality.”

The main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan slammed the interpretation, calling it “unjustified political intervention.” If the Prime Minister’s Office had the intention of putting pressure on broadcasters, it would be a serious problem.

On the other hand, broadcasters that use the airwaves, which are public property, are required to be highly public. For example, if a program only features opinions in keeping with a certain political party’s position, regardless of whether it supports or opposes that position, it cannot be said to be politically fair.

The autonomy of broadcasters can only be guaranteed if they maintain an impartial position as stipulated under the law. As influential media outlets, it is essential to produce programs in a responsible manner.

Several contentious points have been raised in Diet deliberations, about not only the interpretation of the law but also the reliability of the ministry’s documents. It is important to sort out where the issues lie and then discuss them.

Takaichi, now state minister for economic security, has claimed the documents related to her were fabricated and stated that she would resign from the Diet if they were found to be authentic. Opposition parties are focusing on whether a “ministerial lecture” was held at the time, in which bureaucrats of the communications ministry would have explained the interpretation to her.

The opposition may be aiming to force Takaichi to resign, but whether an explanation was given is not the essential issue. It is important for the ruling and opposition parties to discuss specifically how broadcasters should ensure political fairness.

It is also vital for broadcasters to properly utilize the Broadcasting Ethics and Program Improvement Organization, a third-party body, to enhance their self-reform.

The ministry documents also include an exchange between Isozaki and a bureaucrat, in which Isozaki said: “If I lose face because of you, you won’t get away with it. You’ll be fired.” If the exchange did happen, it must be said that his behavior is disgraceful.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, March 15, 2023)