The Cabinet of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Oct. 25 approved and submitted to the Diet a bill to protect state secrets concerning national security.
The bill would allow the government to monopolize information and have far-reaching effects on civil society. It would significantly restrict the people's right to know and the media's freedom of reporting and information gathering.
The Abe administration wants to the bill passed into law during the current Diet session. But we strongly oppose any attempt by the ruling camp to ram through this seriously flawed bill by taking advantage of its majority control of both houses of the Diet.
CITIZENS WOULD ALSO BE AFFECTED
First of all, what kind of information would be designated as “specific secrets" under the law for legal protection? The law would basically cover four areas: national security, diplomacy, prevention of “specific harmful activities," such as espionage, and prevention of terrorism.
The appended table of the bill lists four to 10 items for each of the four areas.
In a nutshell, the government agencies that hold information can designate whatever information they like as state secrets and keep such information secret for as long as they want--without disclosing to the public which pieces of information have been designated as secrets.
RESTRICTIONS ON LEGISLATURE ACCESS
Diet members who are supposed to monitor and scrutinize the government's operations would also be subject to restrictions on accessing designated information.
If a Diet member requests access to classified information, sessions to discuss the request are held behind closed doors. The content of the sessions is only available to a very limited number of people.
Even if lawmakers doubt the appropriateness of certain state secret designations, they could be punished if they expresses such doubts to another Diet member or order their aides to conduct an investigation into the matter.
The government says designated secrets would also be subject to freedom of information requests. But it is difficult to request access to classified information without knowing which information is classified.
In response to various criticisms about the legislation, the Abe administration has added to the bill a provision that says sufficient consideration should be paid to the freedom of reporting and information gathering that contributes to guaranteeing the people's right to know.
The bill also contains a provision that says information gathering by the media should be considered a legitimate operation unless it is done in an illegal or extremely inappropriate manner.
New Komeito, the junior coalition partner of Abe's Liberal Democratic Party, claims these provisions have ensured that the people's right to know will be respected. But the provisions are grossly insufficient.
INTIMIDATING EFFECT ON SOCIETY
The “right to know" has been forced into the bill. But there is no provision to secure enforcement. All that is required is an “effort" to protect the right.
It is also not clear what would qualify as an “inappropriate" way of gathering information for media reporting.
Government employees and defense contractor workers who deal with specific secrets would be subject to background checks to check their trustworthiness.
Leaking a specific secret, even if not deliberately, would be punishable with imprisonment of up to 10 years under the law.
People who obtain classified information illegally or entice leaks by those with access to such information would also face criminal charges whether they are news reporters or not.
The legislation would have a strong intimidating effect on all of society. There are serious concerns that government employees could become very cautious about disclosing even ordinary information.
The opposition Democratic Party of Japan on Oct. 25 submitted a bill to revise the freedom-of-information law that would clearly guarantee the right to know. The bill was previously abandoned at the end of last year.
There has been no progress, either, toward the proposed revision of the law for management of official documents. The revisions would require the government to keep the minutes of Cabinet meetings and other important records concerning government operations and disclose them after a certain period.
Information held by the government actually belongs to the public. The government should first take steps to improve the freedom-of-information system, which is ineffective.
The government should not be allowed to push through legislation to protect state secrets without taking any action to ensure effective information disclosure.
--The Asahi Shimbun, Oct. 26