NSK News Bulletin December 2013
Special state secrets law enacted amid strong opposition and concern
The controversial Special State Secrets Protection Law, which increases the severity of penalties for civil servants who leak state secrets, was passed into law by a majority vote of the ruling coalition of the Liberal Democratic Party and New Komeito at a plenary session of Japan’s Upper House on Dec. 6.
NSK issued a statement on the day of the enactment of the law, saying the new legislation threatens to interfere with the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of newsgathering and freedom of the press in general, depending on how government administrative bodies implement the law. “Our fear is that this legislation can undermine the public’s right to know – which is the very foundation of democracy, and we continue to insist that no law interfere with that freedom,” the statement said.
Under the Special State Secrets Protection Law, Cabinet ministers and other heads of administrative organs can designate as "special secrets" any information they deem to be “sensitive” regarding diplomacy, defense, counterterrorism and counterespionage. A civil servant leaking information thus deemed to compromise national security could face imprisonment for up to 10 years. Any person “instigating” the leaking of such information could face up to five years in prison.
The law says that the public’s fundamental human rights should not be infringed by over-interpreting the legislation, and that due consideration must be paid to the freedom of the press and of newsgathering, to safeguard the public’s right to know. However, there is concern that the designation of the special secrets is to be made at the exclusive discretion of the government and that the scope of what are to be deemed secrets might be overly broad. The law is also being criticized for opening the door to near-permanent governmental non-disclosure of information, thereby further undermining the right to know, the freedom of the press, and journalists’ ability to gather news.
In NSK’s written objections, submitted on Oct. 2 to Masako Mori, state minister in charge of the secrecy law, the leading media association expressed a number of specific concerns about the terms of the law:
- the government and administrative organs might use the law to deliberately designate as a “state secret” any information that is unflattering or inconvenient, or even vital information that must properly remain in the public domain,
- the imposition of stiffer penalties against leakers of state secretes could make civil service workers excessively cautious about releasing any sensitive administrative information, thereby inhibiting the normal distribution of information that is indispensable for the open functioning of society, and,
- depending on how strictly the law is enforced, media organizations might be subjected to punishment for encouraging or “instigating” leaks by civil service workers, even though the media’s news-gathering activities are a key part of their legitimate function.
NSK’s written opinion also repeated the organization’s warning that the legislation can limit the freedom of newsgathering and the freedom of the press, thus threatening the public’s democratic right to know what its own government is doing.
NSK maintains call for lower tax rate on newspapers
The NSK board of directors met on Dec. 11 and reconfirmed its call for the government and ruling coalition to restrict the tax paid on newspapers to the current 5 percent as Japan’s general consumption tax rate gradually rises to 10 percent.
NSK says newspapers are a daily necessity, indispensable for a democratic society, because they provide necessary information and knowledge at a price easily affordable to anyone, at any place in the country.
Legislation enacted in 2012 stipulates that Japan’s consumer tax rate will rise from its current 5 percent level to 8 percent in April 2014. At the end of 2014, the government is due to make a final administrative decision on a second-stage hike, from 8 percent to 10 percent, to take effect at the end of 2015.
In January 2013, NSK issued a statement calling for maintaining the current 5 percent tax rate on newspapers. NSK said that imposing a higher tax rate on information erodes the strength of the nation, noting that it is a common practice in Europe to assess lower rates or to even exempt newspapers and other printed media from taxation altogether.
The NSK annual convention, held in Kagoshima City, adopted a special resolution calling for a lower tax rate on newspapers. Arguing that such tax relief will help contribute to democracy, culture, and the maintenance of regional communities, the delegates said that newspapers will be better able to continue to fulfill their public and cultural missions as guardians of the right to know, thereby seeking the support of readers and the public at large for a lower newspaper-tax policy.
This past September, an NSK study group on the public nature of newspapers, headed by Hidenori Tomatsu, professor emeritus at Gakushuin University, submitted an opinion paper to NSK President Kojiro Shiraishi (who is also the president of the Yomiuri Shimbun) on the legal aspects of imposing consumption tax on newspapers. The opinion paper concludes that a reduced tax rate on newspapers is indispensable for promoting the sound functioning of the democratic political system and for facilitating the maintenance and promotion of Japan’s rich cultural heritage.