Shinzo Abe is so obsessed with China eclipsing Japan on the global stage that he’s adopting some of his neighbour’s policies. What else can we say about the secrecy law the prime minister’s cabinet approved on October 25 – an act that would do so much to undermine and constrain his people’s right to know?
Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party says the move – which gives ministries the authority to classify as state secrets information on counterintelligence, counterterrorism, defence and diplomacy – is necessary to protect the nation’s 126 million people from any number of risks. It claims this is a necessary step towards creating a US-style national security council and safely sharing vital intelligence with allies. And in the aftermath of the Edward Snowden/Bradley Manning leaks that have the US re-examining its secrecy policies, why shouldn’t Japan do something similar?
But Abe isn’t offering definitions or guidelines for what constitutes a “special secret”. Compare that with the specifics about the jail terms journalists can expect for disclosing something that someone, somewhere, somehow might label national security-calibre info: as much as five years. Government officials who blow the whistle on improprieties could get as much as 10 years. But the vagueness of this law will have a further chilling effect on a national media that’s already too docile. If you think it’s hard to follow the state of play with the Fukushima nuclear crisis now, just wait until the law goes into effect, possibly as soon as next month.
My last column explored how China is mimicking the communications strategy Abe is rolling out for his economic revival plan – one that’s more spin than reality. Here’s an example of Abe returning the favour and borrowing a page from the Communist Party playbook. That page refers to curbs Beijing wants to impose on Hong Kong and the imprisonment threats it is using to police the internet.
Abe is no Mao Zedong, nor is he the rabid anti-free-speech crusader that current China President Xi Jinping is proving to be. But Abe’s state-secrets edict would put Japan on a dubious trajectory that damages its national governance and, ultimately, its global standing. If passed by the full parliament in its current form, the law would give government staffers scope to protect anything they deem controversial or inconvenient. Ministries would have clear incentives to label every document they can “top secret”. Sources would become scarce on all manner of misdeeds and abuses of power.
“The most serious problem is that excessive secrecy creates the ideal environment for government wrongdoing,” Lawrence Repeta, a law professor at Tokyo’s Meiji University, says. “This is the most disturbing lesson learned from the Manning and Snowden affairs.”
Manning is the 25-year-old US soldier convicted in August of leaking thousands of classified documents to Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks. Snowden, 30, is the former computer security contractor accused of leaking classified intelligence information. Their actions made the US more reticent about sharing intelligence globally, and Japan’s ability to keep secrets is far from airtight. Abe may believe the new law will endear Japan to its most important ally.
But the potential for abuse, overreach and corruption from this China-like step abounds. It means that a government bureaucrat or regulator who discloses details of a radiation leak at the crippled Fukushima power plant could end up in handcuffs, as could the reporter. Might the same fate befall an employee at Tokyo Electric Power Company who reveals a new mishap? That remains to be seen.
The Japanese media is already prone to self-censorship for fear of alienating advertisers or losing access to sources. All this means that a reporter who gets wind of a Japanese politician running a massive slush fund might be wary of writing a story the nation needs to read. It means a government official miffed about a major Japanese company or bank having links to organised crime would keep quiet. Or that a public-health crisis might never come to light. What about a report about the Bank of Japan’s behind-the-scenes manoeuvres to avert a bond-market crash? Again, we can’t say. How about a journalist detailing the specifics of what Abe told President Barack Obama at a bilateral meeting?
There are many implications to what Abe is proposing. For one thing, it dovetails with his desire to rewrite Japan’s postwar constitution, which was drafted by the US in ways that put civic duty before civil rights. For another, it has uncomfortable parallels with the secrecy state that prevailed before World War II.
No one is saying this law would transport Japan back to those dark days. But it’s an unsettling development. At the very least, Abe needs to detail where the boundaries lie: what exactly a “special secret” is; how such a secret is defined and designated; who gets to decide; the statute of limitations; and the legal process that would make sure justice is preserved. The prime minister needs to ensure there is a transparent independent review process. Limits must be set on the period of confidentiality. The ability to protect secrets forever corrupts.
For all Abe’s rhetoric about standing fast against China, he seems happy to emulate his rival to the west in state-control policy.
William Pesek is a Bloomberg View columnist.