On Jan. 20 the main contingent of Japanese Self-Defense Force troops entered the southern Iraqi city of Samawah after a small advance team had checked the deployment site. This is the first deployment of Japanese ground troops to foreign territory still in a de facto state of war in the 50-year history of the SDF.
In Japan, the media and the government are in a war of their own about how to cover the deployment. The media wants much more information about the activities of the SDF in Iraq, while the government is limiting information on the grounds of safety and security.
On Jan. 23, NSK and the National Association of Commercial Broadcasters in Japan (NAB) complained in writing to Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda about problems covering the advance Ground SDF mission due to the Defense Agency's refusal to provide key information. NSK and the NAB demanded regular media briefings as well as agreement on a set of rules for information release and newsgathering. NSK and the NAB had earlier agreed on Jan. 22 not to engage in any newsgathering in Iraq that could place people in danger or disrupt activities in the area. At a regular news conference on Jan. 23, the chief Cabinet secretary said he expected the Defense Agency and the media to hold candid talks on the matter.
In their complaint to Fukuda, NSK and the NAB said the media had asked the government for appropriate information on the activities of the ground advance team. "However, there has been no improvement and newsgathering in Samawah has been disrupted." They laid prime responsibility at the feet of the Defense Agency for continuing to ignore repeated media requests for essential information.
In their agreement on how to conduct their coverage, NSK and the NAB acknowledged conspicuous conduct that might invite danger, such as following SDF vehicles and assigning too many reporters to an SDF action. The two bodies warned that unless some rules are established, there is a risk of a serious situation, "°ńsuch as the misidentification of journalists as terrorists and as targets for sniper attacks."
NSK and the NAB therefore agreed to call on the government to provide appropriate, timely information to the media, while taking necessary steps to ensure the safety of reporters and others involved.
The NSK-NAB accord says the activities of the SDF in Iraq are of major concern to the Japanese people and it is the duty of the media to report appropriately. NSK and the NAB invited other media groups to endorse their accord.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Fukuda told a news conference that media activities should not impede SDF activities or safety. But he agreed that appropriate information must be provided to win the support of the Japanese people and the international community while also ensuring the safety of media people in the area.
(100-Member Press Corps Cover SDF Activities in Iraq)
According to NSK, as of Jan. 22, seven of the eight national and major regional newspapers, two news agencies, NHK and four Tokyo-based main TV stations had reporters in Iraq. Newspaper companies had generally sent one to four reporters and photographers each, while the reporting teams from TV stations generally totaled between four and seven members each. One TV station had a staff compliment in Iraq of 20 people, including contract-based journalists.
A total of about 100 Japanese and other media people are now based in Samawah, which is to be main base for SDF operations in Iraq.
Kyodo News temporarily withdrew its reporters from Samawah to Baghdad on Jan. 26, following an unconfirmed tip-off that the Japanese media corps in Samawah were being targeted for terrorist attacks. From the time of the first ground force advance deployment, Kyodo News maintained three reporters and one photographer in Samawah, using a private house as their base. Since Jan. 26, only one locally-hired assistant has been working for Kyodo in Samawah.
A Kyodo News official said the decision to pull its staff out of Samawah to Baghdad was made in view of all factors. The information about safety concerns was only one of the factors, as the coverage of the advance team's activities had already ended, the official said. Kyodo reporters are to return to Samawah after the main Japanese SDF ground contingent has deployed in the city.