Networked journalism will move value from “brand” to “contribution”

Journalism is not in crisis. The media industry — and journalists — might be, but the journalism itself is actually improving. [Read more…]

Walls in Front of Freelance Journalists

How many freelance journalists are there in Japan? It’s not easy to say, but almost certainly less than in many other countries. One estimate puts the number at 3000 people, and the number of journalists who make a living just from freelance work could be even fewer. There are few support organizations for freelancers, and a generally low status in Japan’s company-centered society may even deter many promising freelance writers from embarking on a journalism career in the first place.

What is for sure though is that Japan’s freelance journalists include a select group of resourceful and determined investigative reporters. Delving into topics that that major media organizations can’t, or won’t, touch they fight a continual battle against obstructive officialdom, the threat of legal action, even physical attack.

Every month a group of writers, editors, journalists and artists meets in Ochanomizu, central Tokyo. The “Shuppan Network” union has 200 members and is the only labor union in Japan specifically for freelance writers and editors. Among their members are a number of freelance investigative reporters like Kenichi Kita. Kita says that some of Japan’s best-known investigative reporters are the ones who work outside of the major media corporations, but that overall Japan has too little investigative reporting. “If you look at the media in total, there is definitely not enough,” he says.

Kita writes on Japan’s controversial consumer-loan companies for the weekly magazines. He says that the weekly magazines rely heavily on freelancers. The best known writers, like Kita, will have their own bylines – other articles will be compiled from the research of a team of reporters and be published anonymously. Freelancers contribute to chaotic mix of scandal, entertainment news, political analysis, gossip and rumor, but also hard-hitting investigative reporting. Kita contrasts that with the bland output of Japan’s broadsheets. “It’s a fact that about half the articles in newspapers are based on announcements of some kind,” he says.

Freelancer investigative reporters, however, face formidable obstacles. Reporter Yu Terasawa is well known for an ongoing court case against Japan’s press club system. For 17 years he has been covering police corruption cases, but as a freelance he has been systematically denied access to the official information distributed through Japan’s press clubs. “It is obvious that official institutions should treat all journalists equally – but they don’t,” says Terasawa. His most recent suit against the government over the press clubs is now being deliberated on by Japan’s Supreme Court.

Without the protection of a major media organization, freelance journalists can also be easy targets for intimidation. Terasawa had his phone tapped by one of Japan’s controversial consumer loan companies, Takefuji Corporation, after he wrote articles critical of the company. Takefuji’s president was eventually sentenced to a suspended prison term. Another freelance investigative reporter, Katsuhisa Miyake, was sued by the same company in 2003 and ordered to pay 110 million yen (935,000 US dollars). That potentially bankrupting ruling was overturned, but Miyake’s counter-suit to seek compensation from Takefuji is still in progress.

Many freelance journalists point to an alarming trend where companies target individual journalists through the courts. The amount awarded in libel cases have ballooned. “I have been threatened by companies,” says one established weekly magazine freelancer and author, who requested that his name not be used. “I am trying to keep a low profile. There are rumors that some Japanese companies are hiring private detectives to investigate reporters who write about them.”

If freelancers are sued for libel or have problems with their employers, there is little support available. Very few freelancers join a union. According to Shuppan Network member Reiko Kado, that might be because most freelancers have deliberately opted out of Japan’s group-orientated work environment. “A lot of Japanese freelancers just don’t want to be in any kind of organization,” she says. “They are lone wolves.”

There is little training available for aspiring freelance investigative reporters, either. “Probably, many young people who could make good investigative reporters end up in other jobs,” says Yu Terasawa. Japan has few journalism schools and training is almost exclusively on the job. Newspapers can teach their new staff the ins and outs of the newsman’s job, but other cub investigative reporters tend to be on their own. “The weekly magazines don’t have the money or the time to train investigative reporters,” says Terasawa.

Yet, despite the obstacles, there have been a number of major scandals broken by freelance journalists and weekly magazines. Mostly recently, Japan’s consumer loan companies have been a cause-celebre for investigative journalists. A steady stream of revelations about the companies’ unscrupulous tactics has emerged and the government has moved to regulate the industry more strictly.

A number of well known freelancers have carved out reputations for themselves covering other topics neglected by newspapers and TV. Weekly magazine investigative reporter Mika Yanagihara started writing about car accidents 15 years ago. Now she covers police accident investigations and the insurance industry. Other articles have also detailed what she describes as an alarming number of suspicious suicides and accidents where no autopsy was performed. She has published 25 books and has several ongoing magazine series – one of her books was even turned into a TV drama.

But why can’t the newspapers with their vast resources pursue these issues, too? And why is so much investigative reporting left up to the weekly magazines and freelancers? “The newspapers won’t take one incident and investigate it [over time],” says Yanagihara. “They just report when there is news.” Newspaper journalists tend to get shifted around the company from department to department, she says, and from regional bureau to bureau, too. “Even if an individual journalist wants to pursue a story, it’s too difficult.”

She also suspects that advertising income is an issue when magazines consider stories about, for example, major automobile manufacturers. Although that’s not to say there aren’t problems with the weekly magazines as well. “I was once told by an editor, ‘sorry, we have an insurance ad this week, so we can’t take your article.'”

Shunsuke Yamaoka is another one of Japan’s best-known freelance investigative reporters. His articles on corporate scandals run in the weekly magazines, but he was in the news himself when his house suffered an arson attack last year. “They called me before I wrote the article to warn me off,” says Yamaoka. “I know who did it.” After the attack, which burnt out his entrance hall and melted his air-conditioner, Yamaoka had to leave his apartment. “The other people living in the apartment block were scared and forced me to move out.”

The attack didn’t stop Yamaoka’s work though, and he is now running a highly successful subscriber-based news website. “I am probably the first freelance journalist in Japan to make money out of their own news website,” says Yamaoka. He first set up the website in October 2004, and in May this year, when the site was receiving 50,000 hits a day, he decided to start charging money. All the content is written by Yamaoka, mostly about corporate scandals. A year’s subscription costs 9000 yen (76 US dollars) and he already has 1100 subscribers — with 100 new people signing on a month. Yamaoka has already made enough money to set up an office and hire a member of part-time staff.

“To put it simply, I am writing the stories that the newspapers won’t publish,” says Yamaoka. He explains that the newspapers and TV will only start to report on a story when the police have already made an arrest. “If the journalists are just going to wait for the police, what’s the point in having journalists?” asks Yamaoka pointedly. The website has a notice on its front page appealing for “whistle-blowers and information (cases with public benefit only)” along with Yamaoka’s fax number. He says that useful tips come in regularly.

One third of the articles are about stock-exchange listed companies. Yamaoka suspects that many of the subscribers are investors hoping to get unreported stock-related information. “If it was only regular news then I doubt anyone would pay a subscription for it,” he says. The listed company-related articles get about twice as many hits as those on politics.

His new job isn’t without its worries, however. “Of course, there are risks: [the companies] might sue me,” says Yamaoka. “Sometimes I get strange telephone calls.” He is no stranger to the courts having been sued 15 times during his 18 year long career in journalism (and won 12 times). “It’s tough now because I have to pay for all the legal fees myself.” He has several ongoing cases.

So what does the future hold for Japan’s freelancers? Perhaps it’s not all bad news. The Internet has enabled journalists like Yamaoka, as well as a huge number of amateur and professional bloggers, to reach readers directly. Japan has also seen the launch of several citizen journalism websites, most recently a local version of South Korea’s hugely successful OhmyNews. In 2001, Japan’s Freedom of Information Act came into force, making it much easier for freelancers – or indeed anyone – to access official information.

For investigative journalists the official walls that obstruct their research – and a fully free press in Japan – are certainly still standing strong. But then again, perhaps a few cracks have begun to show?

TV Program Full of Patches

Shinzo Abe, Japan’s chief cabinet secretary, basking in resounding support within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), is expected to win a landslide victory in the LDP presidential race next Wednesday. The victory in the ruling party race is tantamount to winning the prime ministership.

Abe, however, was in the center of a raging storm last year when Asahi Shimbun revealed in several articles that then-deputy chief cabinet secretary and Shoichi Nakagawa, another LDP member and now agriculture, forestry and fisheries minister, pressured NHK, Japan’s public television network, to censor a documentary program about a people’s tribunal set up to judge the use of sex slaves by the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II. Most of the victims were Koreans, Chinese, Filipino and Indonesians.

Following the report, an NHK producer also conceded in tears that they were made to remove key footage, including survivors’ heart-wrenching testimony, from the program that was aired in January 2001.

Rumiko Nishino, co-chairperson of VAWW -NET Japan (Violence Against Women in War), a Tokyo-based women’s group, said, “NHK’s top officials prescreened a program on the NHK educational channel with a very low rating. Prescreening itself is an anomaly. Then, they ordered their staff members twice to change the content. So it was a program full of patches.”

VAWW-NET Japan was one of the citizens groups that organized the Women’s International War Crimes Tribunal on Japan’s Military Sexual Slavery, which was held in December 2000. It was supported by NGOs around the world, Nishino said. The group filed a defamation lawsuit against NHK after the documentary on the tribunal was broadcast.

NHK officials, Abe and Nakagawa repeatedly denied the allegation, however. Following the report and a series of embezzlement scandals within NHK, Katsuji Ebisawa, its president, resigned to “take responsibility” and save face for the network, one of the world’s largest.

While Abe was given much time to deny the allegation on TV and discredit the tribunal, those who organized the nonbinding trial were not invited. Citizens groups like VAWW-Net Japan are held in low esteem in a country where people tend to give credit to a large organization.

“So, even Mr. Abe distorted the fact of the tribunal and gave incorrect information about it on TV, journalists who didn’t know the event failed to point that out,” Nishino said.

For instance, Abe said the tribunal had no defense team. The tribunal asked then-Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori to have a defense counsel attend the court. Since Mori never responded, amici curia (an impartial adviser to a court of law in a particular case) explained the Japanese government’s position and point of views, she said.

Critics said the media failed to pursue the truth concerning the NHK documentary program. They now devoted massive favorable coverage to Abe.

Abe’s father, Shintaro Abe, was a foreign minister and his grandfather was former Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi, who was arrested as a suspected Class A war criminal, but later went free. Abe became popular by taking a strong stance against North Korea, especially over the issue of abduction of Japanese by North Korean spies.

“LDP members started making a fuss, complaining NHK was making a biased program and the network changed its content. That’s the only problem. But that’s the only thing that the media apparently agreed never to make the issue of,” said Kenichi Asano, a journalism professor at Doshisha University in Kyoto.

The media shifted the attention away from the LDP members’ pressure by focusing more on a nasty battle between Asahi and NHK. While major papers also criticized Asahi’s coverage, magazines made personal attacks on an Asahi reporter who wrote about the issue, some calling him an “ultraleft reporter.”

The issue took another turn in late July 2005, when influential monthly magazine Gendai published the transcription of the Asahi reporter’s tape of the conversations with Abe, Nakagawa and Takeshi Matsuo, then-executive director in charge of broadcasting at NHK. The article was embarrassing to them since it showed they repeatedly lied about the allegation of censorship, critics said. And it is considered to be clear evidence supporting the allegation, as Matsuo said in the tape that he had met with the two and later changed the content of the program.

The Gendai article infuriated the LDP, which decided not to talk to Asahi Shimbun anymore. While there was not much criticism about the party’s move, Asahi became isolated. In addition, when another Asahi reporter in Nagano made up a story in late August, public trust in the paper dwindled.

That ethical breach, however, was apparently made use of by Asahi leadership to end the dispute over the article on the issue of the NHK documentary, said Asano.

Asahi Shimbun ran articles on Oct. 1 concluding that the article regarding the NHK documentary program included “uncertain” information, and apologized for the tape’s leakage leaked outside the paper.

“You cannot write an investigative report if you are required absolute proof. You can do that without it,” said Asano of Doshisha University. “Asahi’s responsibility makes up 99 percent of the issue. However, absolutely no solidarity among news organizations also led the paper into a difficult situation.”

“Asahi Shimbun, which became popular as a major news organization, kneeled in total surrender to Mr. Abe, and when the LDP stopped Asahi from covering the party, the paper accepted it,” said Yasushi Kawasaki, a former NHK political reporter. “Other news organizations as well go along with Abe, who will most surely become prime minister. Journalism is as good as dead. I’m not joking.”

Nishino said the media play a central role in defending democracy. “However, the Japanese media caved in to authority,” she added.

Minoru Morita, a Tokyo-based political analyst, agreed, “Without doubt, it is the fact that the two pressured NHK. However, Asahi as well as other media caved in and no longer talked about it. Japan’s greatest crisis today is the nonexistence of journalism. Decent information is not disseminated through the media. Those who look like journalists but curry favor with authority are rampant.”

According to Morita, after World War II, the mass media deeply reflected on their responsibilities for being a propaganda machine of the Japanese Imperial Army, and thought they should become more independent like their Western counterparts.

“They kept the spirit about 10 to 15 years after the war. News organizations, however, hired more of those submissive to authority. And they are now in the management class, while younger employees lay their critical thinking to sleep or stifle it and also surrender to authority. It is a very serious situation,” he explained.

Hiroyuki Shinoda, the editor of monthly magazine Tsukuru, which covers the media industry, said the NHK issue is the epitome of self-censorship of major news organizations. When they find their news material “too controversial” to authority figures, they change the content by themselves.

“Since around the 1980s, the media have started to lose consciousness of playing a watchdog role of government and to have less confrontation with it,” he said. “The media have become too big (and powerful), and they have very little spirit that they investigate state power thoroughly in a body.”

Kawasaki asserted Japanese leaders like Mr. Koizumi and Mr. Abe are detached from the freedom of speech.

“One good example is that when one right-wing member set the house of LDP member Koichi Kato fire because of his firm and repeated opposition to Koizumi’s visit to Yasukuni Shrine, both of them did not condemn the attack on the spot,” he said. “It was a rational argument.”

The prime minister also eliminated LDP members opposed to his postal privation plans by not giving them party endorsement during the 2005 House of Representatives elections, he added.

Kawasaki was forced out of a career track at NHK after his coverage of the faction of the late Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka was pulled off the air due to pressure from the LDP. He recalled the network’s disgraced executive, Ebisawa, was a political reporter covering the LDP and became a politician as if he were a member of an LDP faction he covered.

Since Ebisawa became the president, he let more political intervention into NHK coverage than ever, while NHK’s political desk has exerted more influence over the news organization, critics said.

Moreover, Japan Internet News CEO Ken Takeuchi, who was an Asahi Newspaper editorial board member, argued kisha club systems also contribute to the major media’s self-censorship.

“When LDP leaders say, ‘We are not going to make the issue of one’s visit to Yasukuni Shrine this time,’ that creates the atmosphere in which reporters can no longer ask related questions,” explained Takeuchi, whose company launched Japan’s first serious alternative online newspaper, Jan Jan (Japan Alternative News for Justices and New Cultures) three years ago. “Once different kinds of media get in, there would be more different kinds of questions, and angles of their questions would be different.”

Under the system, there are “collusive relations” between the media and authority figures, stressed Takeuchi, who abolished a kisha club system when serving as mayor of Kamakura near Tokyo.

Since those who are at the kisha club systems depend much on authority figures for information, most of the coverage of the LDP presidential race is focused on its candidates, not on the public. The LDP also failed to invite the public to their debate, Takeuchi said.

“As an open political party, they have to involve the public in their debate,” he said. “However, since their debate is preoccupied with party logic, the scope of debate is inevitably limited.”

Since most of the public cannot vote for the intra-party race, critics asked why in the world the mass media excessively cover it to begin with. The largest opposition Democratic Party of Japan also holds a presidential race this month, however, the coverage of the DPJ race is “less than 10 percent of the LDP coverage,” Morita said.

NHK, Mainichi Shimbun, Asahi Shimbun, Nihon Keizai Shimbun and Sankei Shimbun all agreed that since the victory of the ruling party race is expected to win the prime ministership, it is natural that they should cover it. Yomiuri Shimbun declined to comment.

“Not only opposition parties, but the ruling coalition was not covered. All they got is just Mr. Abe,” Kawasaki emphasized. “He was all over.”

The public relations department at Yomiuri Shimbun decline to comment when asked about criticism that the media failed to raise the issue of censorship concerning the NHK program, though many experts, journalist and viewers believed NHK did change the content of the program due to political pressure.

The paper said in its editorial when Ebisawa quit last year, “… the subject of the program should be questioned in connection with the Broadcast Law, which obliges the broadcaster to be neutral and fair.”

The public relations department at Sankei Shimbun said in its statement, “The reason we could not help being critical of Asahi Shimbun is that it is a matter affecting the whole news media … The court was questioned concerning its fairness and neutrality as it mainly consists of female judges and prosecutors but lacks a defense team.”

Nishino of VAWW-Net Japan said the tribunal had amici curiae.

“Since NHK is a public broadcasting system, whether the content of the program is appropriate or not is an essential problem,” the Sankei statement referred to the documentary about wartime sex slavery.

According to the president’s office of major economic daily Nihon Keizai Shimbun, the paper does not respond to questions about such specific topics, unless they refer to one of its own articles.

While critics said Asahi Shimbun closed the curtain on the NHK problem, leaving the truth vague, the paper’s public relations department responded by saying it devoted two pages to its own views and findings of an independent group, and President Kotaro Akiyama also held a news conference. So they disagreed with the criticism.

The public relations department at NHK responded in its statement by saying, “There is no (evidence) that the content of the program was changed due to political pressure.”