Japan’s ruling coalition is open to revising a bill giving the government sweeping power to keep secrets, a law critics say could limit disclosure on anything from Fukushima-like nuclear accidents to corruption.
The government is willing to consider changes from the opposition, Isamu Ueda, who heads coalition member New Komeito’s security panel, said in an interview in Tokyo yesterday. Debate on the measure in Parliament begins tomorrow, Ichiro Aisawa, chairman of the lower house’s steering committee, said today.
“The bill has already been modified to include suggestions from New Komeito,” Ueda said. “If there are opinions from the opposition, I think there will be flexibility about revisions.”
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has said the bill, along with one setting up a national security council, is needed to enable closer defense ties with allies, and U.S. officials have praised the proposal. The law stiffens penalties for bureaucrats who leak secrets and for the journalists who report them, and broadens the definition of secret information from defense to cover diplomacy, terrorism and safety threats. That will allow the government to suppress virtually anything, opponents say.
“It damages the public’s right to know,” Banri Kaieda, a lawmaker for the opposition Democratic Party of Japan, told reporters in Tokyo yesterday. “Although it may be necessary to withhold information for a time,” ruling Liberal Democratic Party officials are calling for protecting secrets for “30 or 50 years,” he said. “That opens up the possibility of covering it up forever.”
The changes already adopted at Komeito’s behest include a phrase saying that the public’s right to know and journalists’ right to report should be taken into account. The opposition has yet to make specific suggestions for amending the bill.
The law “tries to protect secrets with heavy penalties, without making clear what information is actually secret,” said Tsutomu Shimizu, a Tokyo-based lawyer from the Japan Federation of Bar Associations’ task force on the bill.
A call for public comment on the bill by the Cabinet Secretariat in September drew about 89,000 opinions, 70,000 of them negative. A poll conducted by phone Oct. 26-27 and published by Kyodo News on Oct. 28 found 35.9 percent of respondents approved of the bill and 50.6 percent were opposed. Almost 83 percent said it should be cautiously examined in parliament, according to the poll, which didn’t give a margin of error.
The Nikkei newspaper reported Nov. 2 that 400,000 pieces of information were likely to be initially defined as secret when the law passes. Bureaucrats could be imprisoned for as much as 10 years, compared with five under the current law, with journalists facing jail terms of up to five years.
“Secrets are necessary to enable us to protect the lives of the people and the safety of the country,” LDP lawmaker and the former defense agency chief and Gen Nakatani said in a television program broadcast by NHK on Nov. 3.
Japan needed to be able to receive military information from other countries including the U.S. and keep it secret, he said. “If we don’t protect our codes and the specifications of our equipment we can’t defend the country, so we need a stronger system than the one we have.”
The changes come as Japan seeks to bolster its strategic ties with countries across Asia and expand its defense capacity, with its first ever national security strategy to be completed by the end of the year. Abe is looking to counter China’s growing military assertiveness in Asia, with the region’s two-biggest economies embroiled in a territorial dispute over islands in the East China Sea.
“Japan will be a more effective alliance partner if they can appropriately safeguard shared national security information,” Kurt Tong, U.S. Charge d’Affaires in Tokyo, told an Oct. 29 symposium in Tokyo.
The DPJ has called for the secrets bill to be discussed alongside another piece of legislation on information disclosure. Any modifications to the bill would depend on the progress of debate in the Diet, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said yesterday.