UN Officials Express Concern About Japan Secrecy Bill

22 November 2013

The United Nations Special Rapporteurs on freedom of expression and on the right to health on Nov. 22 “expressed serious concern about the draft Special Secrets Bill, which establishes grounds and procedures for the classification of information held by the Japanese State,” according to a UN press release.

They requested further information from the Japanese authorities on the draft law and voiced their concerns regarding its compliance with human rights standards.

The legislation is still pending before the Diet with passage considered imminent. Protests were held Nov. 21, according to a newspaper account. 

“Transparency is a core requirement for democratic governance,” the Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression, Frank La Rue, said. “The draft bill not only appears to establish very broad and vague grounds for secrecy but also include serious threats to whistle-blowers and even journalists reporting on secrets.”

The press release says further that La Rue “stressed that secrecy with regard to public affairs is only acceptable where there is a demonstrable risk of substantial harm and where that harm is greater than the overall public interest in having access to the information kept confidential.”

“Even in the exceptional cases where authorities might establish the need for confidentiality the review of their decision by an independent body is essential,” he wrote.

Noting the potential penalties in the law, the Special Rapporteur said “government officials who, in good faith, release confidential information on violations of the law, or wrongdoing by public bodies, should be protected against legal sanctions.”

“Other individuals, including journalists and civil society representatives, who receive or disseminate classified information because they believe it is in the public interest, should also not be liable to any sanction unless they put individuals in an imminent situation of serious harm,” he said.

The Special Rapporteur on the right to health, Anand Grover, “underlined the need for to always ensure full transparency in emergency contexts,” The UN summary says. He wrote, “Particularly in calamities, it is essential to ensure that the public is provided with consistent and timely information enabling them to make informed decisions regarding their health.”

“Most democracies, including Japan, clearly recognise the right to access information. As much as the protection of national security might require confidentiality in exceptional circumstances, human rights standards establish that the principle of maximum disclosure must always guide the conduct of public officials,” concluded the rapporteurs.

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