Japan’s lower house of parliament – powered mainly by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) – is set to pass a controversial new state secrets bill, a law which critics say may impinge on press freedom and the public’s right to know. After a morning of debate, a lower house special committee gave the green light to the bill, which if approved would then give the Japanese government broader powers in deciding what constitutes a state secret, and severely punish those who leak what they would deem as confidential information.
“It is an urgent task to prepare for legislation that should remain secret at a time when fears over information leaks are growing,” Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told the committee. The hawkish premier still stands by his belief that the bill would neither restrict freedom of the press nor encourage authorities to “arbitrarily” designate information as restricted. “Frankly speaking, there is misunderstanding,” Abe said. “I want to firmly say that it is obvious that normal reporting activity of journalists must not be a subject for punishment under the bill.”
Japanese media have been preparing for the worst, as the committee that handled the bill was dominated by Abe’s ruling coalition. It was always likely that the legislation would get the committee’s nod, clearing the way for a vote in the full chamber later on Tuesday. The LDP, which Abe leads, controls both the lower and upper houses and has set its aims on enacting the bill by December 6 when the current parliament session ends, despite growing concerns among major opposition parties and the public.
The legislation has a legitimate aim, at the very least – which is to plug Japan’s notoriously leaky bureaucracy that has been the complaint of chief ally the United States, as the latter has been reluctant to share information because of this. But thousands of demonstrators have hit the streets to voice out their anger at the bill. Under the proposals, information related to defense, diplomacy, counter-intelligence and counter-terrorism can all be classified as a state secret, at the behest of those in power. Critics argue that the bill could mean far more information being kept from the public, with little real oversight.