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Media discouraged from reporting on tsunami, earthquake fallout, says CPJ

Hiro Ugaya in tsunami-destroyed Noda Mura village, which received scant media attention
Hiro Ugaya in tsunami-destroyed Noda Mura village, which received scant media attention

Hiro Ugaya

Freelancers in Japan says they and foreign and online media have been actively excluded from reporting on the nuclear threat and other calamities resulting from the earthquake and tsunami, reports the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

Last week, the Japanese government upped the danger rating for the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station to its highest level. According to CPJ, it is not clear if the government or Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), which runs the plant, withheld the extent of the risk.

"The local media's habitual allegiance to officials who arrange press conferences and companies that buy advertising makes it hard to tell, and freelancers who are eager to probe deeper say their questions have been suppressed," said CPJ.

Take author and freelancer Takashi Uesugi. After appearing in his weekly guest slot on the local TBS radio station on 15 March where he strongly criticised TEPCO, the station asked him not to come back. "I was removed from my slot on the TBS programme permanently," Uesugi told CPJ.

Japanese journalist Makiko Segawa says that media owners are hoping to preserve their portion of the US$120 million TEPCO lays out annually in media advertisements.

Segawa, who writes for Shingetsu News Agency, which focuses on Japan-Middle East relations, reported that when news of the tsunami broke, several of Japan's mainstream media executives were accompanying TEPCO Chair Tsunehisa Katsumata on a trip to China. TEPCO said they paid the majority of the expenses.

Not that keeping TEPCO satisfied is anything new. In 2007, no mainstream media reported that a Fukushima law-maker had asked TEPCO to construct a higher breakwater to guard against the threat of a tsunami.

Local journalists told CPJ that one of the problems is that only professional journalists are admitted into press conferences, which can "foster docility among reporters willing to forgo asking critical questions in exchange for continued access." Some in Japan are asking whether these conventional reporters have been passively reprinting government and TEPCO risk assessments unconfirmed - even when they conflict with one another or with independent findings, reports CPJ.

Freelancer Hiro Ugaya says at the very least, the Prime Minister's Office press conference should be open to the foreign press and freelancers. "The mainstream media are too cooperative with the government and other authorities, such as electric power companies and their lobbyists… Consequently, they behave like an outsourced government PR division," he wrote on CPJ's blog.

Ugaya said one of the villages he visited earlier this month, Noda Mura, had received scant media attention even though half the village was wiped out in the tsunami. "I presume the government tried to make the damages sound as minimal as possible, maybe not to cause public panic or simply because they are reluctant to show the failures they have made," he wrote.

Segawa says online sources have also come under pressure to toe the government line. Early this month, the Ministry of General Affairs announced a task force to enforce guidelines for Internet sites deemed to be spreading false rumours. The Telecom Services Association, one of Japan's leading Internet providers, said they had complied with some of the task force's requests, resulting in the removal of prohibited information from the Internet, such as images of corpses. "The media has not covered this story," she told CPJ.

"It is to be hoped that this step toward controlling online information does not solidify into a long-term censorship policy," said CPJ. "The people on the ground are the ones the government should be working to protect - not TEPCO's interests, or its own grip on information."

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