"As all eyes are on Japan during the football World Cup, Reporters Without Borders (RSF - Reporters Sans Frontières) wishes to draw attention to the urgent need for reform of the kisha clubs (official press clubs) system, which is an obstacle to the freedom of the press in Japan", says Robert Ménard, Secretary-General of Reporters Without Borders. He has called on Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to use his influence to turn the kisha clubs into press centres open to freelance journalists and foreign correspondents. "With thousands of foreign journalists in Japan to cover the World Cup, it is outrageous that correspondents of the foreign press should be excluded from most of these clubs, around which the whole media system has been structured for nearly fifty years", Mr Ménard stresses.
Experts date the creation of the first kisha club, in the "corridors of power" of the Japanese parliament, back to 1882. Ever since then, the various regimes have all encouraged these clubs, membership of which is restricted to certain journalists. Today at least 800 kisha clubs exist throughout the country. Most of them are attached to public institutions (ministries or provincial governments, for example), to the major corporations, political parties, or to the Imperial Palace. They number more than 12,000 journalists representing nearly 160 media organisations. On average, about 20 reporters in each kisha club are affiliated to the main daily newspapers, state television channels and news agencies (Kyodo and Jiji). The members of the club work as a pool of reporters, in offices provided for them by the institution.
Freelance Japanese journalists and foreign correspondents are barred from most of the kisha clubs. Foreign correspondents are only allowed membership of the club attached to the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs. As a result, these two categories of media professionals are denied access to certain news and information emanating from the principal government departments and major corporations.
As Reporters Without Borders stated in its 2002 Annual Report, "The main obstacle to true freedom of the press in Japan remains kisha clubs (official press clubs). People are starting to speak out against this nepotistic system. On 15 May, Yasuo Tanaka, the reformist governor of Nagano province, announced that he was leaving the ’kisha club system’. He refused to fund the province’s three clubs, and planned to create a press centre that would be accessible to all journalists. The sixteen media affiliated with the Nagano province kisha clubs denounced this decision and stated that it increased ’the risks of information being manipulated’." Since that date, the press centre has been open to all freelance or syndicated journalists, whether Japanese or foreign. This has however had the effect of putting Mr Tanaka, an independent politician, into the bad books of the Liberal Democratic Party, the party in power since 1955.
In addition, the organisation has expressed its concern, in a letter to Prime Minster Junichiro Koizumi, about the possibilities of abusive application of the Bill on the protection of personal information, currently being examined by the Japanese parliament. "Protecting privacy is commendable, but we know from experience that this type of legislation also allows the freedom of the press to be restricted", concludes Robert Ménard.
According to information gathered by Reporters Without Borders, the National Diet (Japanese parliament) is due to examine the Bill on the protection of personal information before the close of the current legislative session on 19 June 2002. Under the proposed legislation all those, notably journalists, who collect personal information about other people, will at all times have to be able to show why they are gathering such information; to classify such information in a "suitable" manner; to ensure the veracity of such information; to prevent the dissemination of such information to a third party; and to ensure that the person under investigation always has transparent access to the information. In May 2001, Shinichi Sano, a well-known freelance journalist, launched a campaign against the Bill, which in his view represents a threat to the work of independent media professionals.
The terms "suitable manner" and "personal information" are imprecisely defined in the text, for example. And Reporters Without Borders regrets that the Prime Minister has stated that he hopes for the support of the media in applying the legislation.