October 18, 20
The government and ruling parties reached an agreement concerning a proposed “special secrets” protection law to strengthen punishment for leaking confidential information concerning national security. Modifications to the bill will spell out the public’s “right to know” and “freedom of reporting.”
The Cabinet plans to soon approve the revised bill and submit it to the Diet.
The media and the legal community criticized the original government bill, saying it will restrict the public’s right to know. The revisions reflect the view of junior coalition partner New Komeito, which responded to the criticism.
However, fundamental suspicion of the bill remains. Critics say specific information could be kept secret without proper checks, and that the bill lacks a system to guarantee verification by future generations.
We are opposed to the bill as it is.
The gist of the bill is as follows: In the four areas of national defense, diplomacy, prevention of espionage and prevention of terrorism, Cabinet ministers designate as “special secrets” any information that could affect national security if it is leaked.
Government employees and citizens who leak such information face imprisonment of up to 10 years.
The problem is that we have no way of knowing what information is designated a special secret and have no means to check whether the designation is appropriate.
Although the maximum period of designation is set at five years, it can be extended any number of times, making it possible to keep the information secret forever.
Responding to a request from the ruling parties, the government said in the bill that it must “pay adequate consideration” to the public’s right to know and the media's freedom of reporting and information gathering.
Furthermore, when establishing standards for the “special secrets” designation, the government is required to hear the views of intellectuals and experts and to obtain Cabinet approval to keep specific information secret in excess of 30 years.
Still, the designation of secret information is left to the discretion of Cabinet ministers. Cabinet approval would make it possible to extend the period of designation past 30 years.
We understand that some information must be kept confidential for security reasons. But we must question whether new legislation is needed in addition to the existing general obligation of secrecy for government employees and systems to protect defense secrets stipulated by the Self-Defense Forces Law.
The government has repeatedly shown its strong reluctance when it comes to information disclosure, including its tight lid on a secret agreement with the United States concerning such matters as the reversion of Okinawa.
After the Great East Japan Earthquake, it was also revealed that records of important government meetings were not kept.
As long as such practices prevail, we cannot dispel misgivings that politicians and bureaucrats may use the new law as a pretext to further keep information to themselves. If the bill is passed, government employees are likely to retreat when media organizations approach them for information.
It is fine to spell out freedom of reporting and coverage in the bill, but it does not guarantee anything.
--The Asahi Shimbun, Oct. 18