Abe Promotes Secrecy, Sidelining Transparency and OGP

7 October 2013

By Jeff Kingston

Kingston is Director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.

Norika Fujiwara, a TV celebrity who serves as goodwill Ambassador for the Japanese Red Cross, recently caused a media sensation when she came out against the government’s proposed secrecy legislation, saying it would adversely affect citizens. Writing on her website last month, she urged her fans to pressure the government to kill the bill the Diet will take up in an extraordinary session beginning October 15. Fujiwara sides with the Japan Newspaper Publishers & Editors Association in opposing the bill because it threatens the right to know and freedom of speech, thus imperiling democracy. In doing so she risks a career meltdown because celebrities aren’t supposed to take political stands in Japan, especially when they are opposing the state.

But on September 19 the usually spineless NHK took up the cudgels for Fujiwara and highlighted the downside of the draft secrecy bill, even asking whether its enactment might cause Japan to regress to the situation prevailing in wartime Japan. Civil servants who leak classified information, and journalists who obtain such secrets, would face imprisonment of up to ten years. Of course NHK interviewed people on both sides of the debate, but drew attention to New Komeito’s opposition to steamrollering the law through the Diet, calling on its ruling coalition partner LDP to back off and seek public understanding.  The Japan Federation of Bar Associations argues that the new secrecy bill represents an unwarranted risk to the people’s right to know and that enforcing existing legislation would suffice.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga countered that the secrecy legislation is urgent and needs to be ready for the upcoming launch of Japan’s National Security Council, alluding to US reluctance to share highly classified intelligence with Tokyo. Washington suspects that the Japanese government is a leaky sieve so the legislation aims to reassure that Tokyo can keep a secret. Good luck on convincing Washington’s intelligence community — even if it should be red-faced about its own slips.

The draft State Secrets Protection bill is slated for submission to the Diet this autumn, but widespread criticism has lead the government to consider inserting provisions protecting the public’s right to know and journalists’ freedom of reporting. These are fundamental citizen rights that are guaranteed by the Constitution, but it is not clear how the tacked on protections would amount to more than window dressing on a bill that seeks to vastly widen the scope of information that is kept secret.

Heads of administrative agencies would gain sweeping discretionary authority to classify information related to defense, diplomacy, espionage and terrorism as “special secrets”, but since there is no review process the system is open to abuse. Lawrence Repeta, Professor of Law at Meiji University, says, “It appears that the new law will expand the scope of “national secrets” to include nearly anything a government official chooses… the lack of a review mechanism is the biggest flaw.”

The key problem is that “special secrets” are vaguely defined and the loose guidelines would enable the government to designate almost all inconvenient documents a secret for no legitimate reason. Given officials’ longstanding tendency to hide rather than divulge, and the absence of a process to overturn their decisions, there is a high risk of secrecy creep.

The flip side of secrecy is transparency. Since 2001, Japan’s central government has adopted Information Disclosure legislation that aims to help citizens and organizations, including the media, to exercise their right to know. Information disclosure is based on the principle that government and governance improve to the extent that citizens know what officials are doing. The cascade of revelations in the 1990s and since about corruption, abuses of power and dumb decisions that proved harmful to the public interest aroused public skepticism and anger towards those who govern, thus goading local governments to adopt information disclosure legislation. This grassroots firestorm swept through Japan precisely because the public knows what happens when officials don’t think someone is looking over their shoulder. Finally the central government joined the party, although not until shredding masses of documents- a practice the Ministry of Defense has continued with excessive enthusiasm.

Information disclosure legislation has altered the relationship between those who govern and citizens, enhancing transparency and accountability while eroding the prevailing cocoon of impunity. The media relies extensively on information requests from government ministries to fulfill its watchdog role. But promoting transparency is a work in progress because it challenges entrenched practices and inclinations.  A bill to strengthen the information disclosure died law  in committee last year due to LDP opposition.

According to Joel Rheuben, an Australian lawyer researching Japanese law at the University of Tokyo, the revisions included, “some important provisions that would have made it easier to challenge non-disclosure decisions in judicial proceedings. They were nevertheless opposed by a significant proportion of the Japanese civil service.” With the LDP in power, the proposed revisions are now off the agenda. Instead, Team Abe is pushing secrecy and plugging leaks, making one wonder what exactly it has to hide or thinks it might need to hide.

Rheuben alerted me to Japan’s non-participation in the Open Government Partnership summit to be held in London later this month. The OPG initiative was promoted vigorously by PM David Cameron at the G8 Summit hosted by Great Britain this year and Japan signed a joint statement pledging to promote the body, seemingly since forgotten.

From Asia, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, and Japanese aid recipients Indonesia, the Philippines and Mongolia are attending the London OGP meeting, raising questions about why Japan, ostensibly committed to good governance, won’t be represented. Perhaps because it is a subversive organization that opposes the way the LDP prefers to govern.

For example, the OGP declaration states: Governments collect and hold information on behalf of people, and citizens have a right to seek information about governmental activities. We commit to promoting increased access to information and disclosure about governmental activities at every level of government. Public engagement, including the full participation of women, increases the effectiveness of governments, which benefit from people’s knowledge, ideas and ability to provide oversight. We commit to making policy formulation and decision making more transparent, creating and using channels to solicit public feedback, and deepening public participation in developing, monitoring and evaluating government activities. We commit to protecting the ability of not-for-profit and civil society organizations to operate in ways consistent with our commitment to freedom of expression, association, and opinion.”

So why have more than 60 nations jumped on board the OGP express in just two years? It says, “Because the desire for honest, efficient and effective government is universal, and is now more urgent than ever. In many places, public confidence in government is at all-time lows, and people are demanding a voice. More and more governments around the world recognize that to keep up, we must open up. We now have the know-how and the technology to reinvent the relationship between citizens and the state.”

Uh-oh, these transparency radicals sound like they might make things difficult for Japan’s vested interests and expose how they are bamboozling the public. And what about the “tradition” of cash-and-carry politics? Well at least the public can guess why Team Abe is giving the OGP a miss even if this may soon become a special secret.

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