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The media's right to know vs. privacy
(From The Japan Times Nov. 4 issue)



    There is a strong social trend toward protecting privacy. A milestone is the enforcement of the Private Information Protection Law from April.

    But the government is apparently taking advantage of this trend and people's distrust of the media — due to their often sensationalistic crime coverage — to control the flow of information.

    The government draft of a basic plan for implementation of the law to provide assistance to crime victims and their family members enacted in 2004 contains a problematic clause. It says that the police should "comprehensively consider" the need to protect crime victims' privacy, on the one hand, and the public interest of publicizing their names, on the other, so that an announcement on each crime will be made in the most appropriate way. This means that the decision on whether or not to identify crime victims publicly should be left to the judgment of the police.

    A governmental study group is reported to have decided to retain this clause intact in principle and the government will adopt it at a Cabinet meeting in December. If the draft is adopted as is, the police will have broader discretionary power and it is likely their decisions will become arbitrary. In the past, the police usually made public the names of crime and accident victims unless it was believed that doing so would result in defamation or hamper investigations.

    These days, the police tend to keep secret the identities of crime victims, citing their wishes. The idea in the draft will accelerate this trend, making it increasingly difficult for reporters to collect information from crime victims and people close to them. Reporters will become unable to confirm whether crimes took place in the manner that the police have announced. The eventual result will be a weakening of the media's function as a watchdog over the powers that be.

    The Japanese Newspaper Publishers and Editors Association submitted a written opinion to the Cabinet Office on Oct. 21 opposing the government draft. The statement represents not only newspapers and news agencies but also broadcast organizations. Calling for the deletion of the clause in question, the statement said that the names of crime victims are indispensable for objectively examining and reporting the incidents in which they were involved.

    The association said that the police should make public the names of crime victims and the media should decide whether or not to make them public in their reports. This means that in principle, the names will be disclosed in news stories when they have social significance. The association said that the media will not disclose the identities when there is the danger of harming the victims' privacy or of secondary criminal damage. It also said that the media, acting with sincerity, will talk with crime victims if the victims so desire, and will consult with the police if the police wish to convey the messages of crime victims.

    In reporting crimes, news organizations carry a heavy responsibility. In collecting news materials from crime victims and people close to them, members of the media must demonstrate self-restraint; that is they must avoid deeds that hurt the feelings of crime victims and refrain from sensationalism. Their news coverage should be in accordance with the basic principle of crime reporting — to help the public share the backgrounds of crimes and to facilitate crime prevention. The media must convince the public that they are trying to contribute to society through their crime reporting.

    The trend to hide information is not limited to the police. Since the Private Information Protection Law went into effect, attempts by government ministries and agencies to hide information have become salient. Perhaps they do not properly understand the spirit of the law, or they are overreacting to the law or they are deliberately skewing interpretation of the law. For example, the Health, Welfare and Labour Ministry said that starting next year, it will not disclose the names of people who have passed the state examinations for medical doctors, dentists and nurses. Instead, it will announce only the successful candidates' test numbers and the names of the places where they have sat for the tests. In principle, the identity of people engaged in professions in which people's life are at stake and information on public servants should be disclosed.

    The government should retract the clause on the handling of the identities of crime victims. It should pay attention to the newspaper association's statement: "The real names of crime victims provide core information to what actually happened in society. Will it be all right to leave the final decision on whether to make them public or not to the police? We have misgivings about a society in which not only the police but also the administrative offices can control information related to people as they wish."

The Japan Times Weekly
Nov. 5, 2005
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