The powerful lower house of the Diet approved a state secrecy bill late Tuesday that imposes stiffer penalties on bureaucrats who leak secrets and journalists who seek them, despite criticism the government is making a heavy-handed effort to hide what it’s doing and suppress press freedom.
The public is concerned because the government won’t say exactly what becomes secret. Critics say the law could allow the government to withhold more information and ultimately undermine Japan’s democracy.
The ruling party says the law is needed to encourage the United States and other allies to share national security information with Japan. With the creation of a U.S.-style National Security Council in his office, it is part of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s efforts to strengthen Japan’s role in global security and create a more authoritarian government at home.
“This law is designed to protect the safety of the people,” Abe said, promising to relieve citizens’ concerns through further parliamentary debate.
The bill allows heads of ministries and agencies to classify 23 vaguely worded types of information related to defense, diplomacy, counterintelligence and counterterrorism, almost indefinitely.
Critics say it might sway authorities to withhold more information about nuclear power plants, arguing they could become terrorist targets. Or they warn that officials may refuse to disclose key elements of free trade talks to protect concessions that would make Tokyo or a partner look bad.
At a public hearing in Fukushima on Monday, the only one held before the vote, lawyer Hiroyasu Maki said the bill’s definition of secrets is so vague and broad that it could easily be expanded to include radiation data crucial to the evacuation and health of residents in case of another nuclear crisis. Opponents said that Tuesday’s vote despite unanimous opposition by the seven local officials invited to the hearing already shows the Abe government’s high-handed approach.
Under the bill, leakers in the government face prison terms of up to 10 years, up from one year now. Journalists who obtain information “inappropriately” or “wrongfully” can get up to five years in prison, prompting criticism that it would make officials more secretive and intimidate the media. Attempted leaks or inappropriate reporting, complicity or solicitation are also considered illegal.
“This is a severe threat on freedom to report in Japan,” said Lawrence Repeta, a law professor at Meiji University in Tokyo. “It appears the Abe administration has decided that they can get a lot of what they want, which is to escape oversight, to decrease transparency in the government by passing a law that grants the government and officials broad authority to designate information as secret.”
Currently, each Japanese ministry has its own rules to protect secrets, including “defense secrets” decided by the Defense Ministry. The proposed legislation would complement a separate bill, also due to be passed this week, to establish a National Security Council that would centralize the chain of command in the office of the prime minister and give him more power.
Japanese and foreign journalists, writers, academics and activists have opposed the bill.
According to the result of a government-sponsored “public comment” process in September, 77% of about 90,000 comments opposed the bill, most of them expressing concerns about the possibility of their civil activities being curtailed.
Activist Kazuyuki Tokune says his attempts to access information about nuclear power plants may be considered illegal under a broad interpretation of the law.
“I may be arrested some day for my anti-nuclear activity,” Tokune said during a protest against the secrecy bill outside the Prime Minister’s Office. “But that doesn’t stop me.”
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Convenient timing in regard to the World’s worst nuclear disaster no?