Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sought to contain a political storm over calls by ruling party lawmakers to punish news organizations critical of his defense-policy overhaul.
Abe apologized in parliament on Friday for comments by politicians in his Liberal Democratic Party, saying they “defy common sense.” In response to questions from opposition lawmakers, he said it was important to safeguard press freedoms.
The ruckus began after LDP lawmaker Hideo Onishi said at a party gathering last week that companies should cut advertising with news outlets that publish “wrong” reports. At the meeting, best-selling novelist Naoki Hyakuta -- a friend of Abe’s -- said Okinawa’s two main newspapers should be “crushed” for opposing the government over the relocation of a U.S. military base. Onishi repeated his attack on the media this week, despite a warning from party leadership.
“These are extremely regrettable statements that defy common sense and damage public trust,” Abe said Friday. “It’s important to be a country that guarantees newspapers’ freedom of expression, and it’s our responsibility to protect the media from any act that threatens their freedom.”
Public support for Abe is falling as he strives to pass unpopular legislation to expand the role of the military. The bout of party infighting comes as months of debate over the bills risk diverting the prime minister’s attention from an economic program designed to drag Japan out of more than a decade of deflation.
“Personally, I think people should refrain from advertising with media outlets that publish wrong reports,” Onishi told reporters in Tokyo on Tuesday. “I am willing to punish them.”
The comments sparked an angry reaction from Japanese media. The Japan Newspaper Publishers and Editors Association issued a “stern protest,” saying it was a particular problem because ruling party lawmakers had made the comments. The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan also published a statement urging the government and ruling party to refrain from actions that could affect press freedom.
“They are hampering debate on the bills,” Finance Minister Taro Aso said of the critical lawmakers Thursday, according to the Nikkei newspaper. “They probably meant to be cheerleaders, but they’re holding us back.”
While Abe’s ruling bloc boasts a two-thirds majority in the lower house that would enable him to pass the security legislation without help from other parties, he has vowed to win the public’s understanding. The coalition is also in talks to gain the backing of the small Japan Restoration Party.
Almost 59 percent of respondents to a poll published in the Sankei newspaper Monday said they were opposed to passing the bills in the current session of parliament, which has been extended through September. Support for Abe’s cabinet dropped to 46 percent from 54 percent a month earlier.
Abe has had a troubled relationship with the media. In September, he singled out the Asahi newspaper for criticism after it admitted a series of stories on Asian women trafficked to Japanese military brothels before and during World War II had been based on false accounts.