Japan's Public Broadcaster NHK Found Guilty of Censoring Women's Tribunal

IndiMedia, Crow, 06 Feb 2007


VAWW Supporter at the Press Conference before the verdict


A Japanese women's group scored a major legal victory against censorship. The Tokyo High Court found NHK had bowed to combined pressure from prominent politicians and right-wing groups and distorted a programme about the Women's International War Crimes Tribunal on Japan's Military Sexual Slavery, held in 2000. In the Tribunal, the late emperor Hirohito had been found guilty of crimes against humanity in authorizing the so-called 'comfort women' system, and consecutive Japanese governments in non-compliance with its international obligations under human rights and women's conventions.

NHK, a subsidiary and a production company were sentenced to pay 2 mio Yen in damages to Violence Against Women in War-Network Japan (VAWW-Net) , an NGO that NHK had asked to collaborate on the documentary programme. The verdict, announced January 29, 2007 and published in several national newspapers the next morning (Mainichi Shimbun p.2; Asahi Shimbun p. 33) said that last minute changes were made in response to comments by politicians who held financing strings for NHK, notably Shinzo Abe (now Prime Minister, at the time heading his party's controversial panel on education) (Asahi p.33 para.1) , and that NHK had "abused its editorial rights," violating VAWW-Net Japan's "right to expect" a certain pre-agreed use of the materials they had contributed.

The documentary was supposed to educate the Japanese public about the issue of institutionalized sexual violence perpetrated by the Japanese military during World War II. It was part of a series on "How War is to be Judged" scheduled to be broadcast in early 2001 NHKs educational channel ETV and was to use material from the Women's International War Crimes Tribunal, a historical civil society tribunal held in Tokyo in late 2000.

Survivors, euphemistically known as 'comfort women', had begun to come forward in the 1990s after a lifetime of silence with the personal scars and social stigma, partly under the impression of reports on similar systematic sexual violence in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The Tribunal was set up to respond to survivors' need for public acknowledgment of their suffering, to assign specific responsibility rather then the general apologies offered so far by the Japanese government, and to help prevent similar crimes in the present and future, not only by Japan, but all war situations. It was co-organized by Japanese women dissatisfied with their government's handling of the issue, notably VAWW-net, in solidarity with groups in Taiwan, South Korea and the Philippines and an international network of women's groups. Four experts in international law acted as judges, hearing over 60 testimonies from survivors, former Japanese soldiers and expert witnesses. The final judgment as reported to the UN noted that Japan has "repeatedly acted to obstruct the disclosure of the truth of the 'comfort station ' system" and "remains under a continuing obligation to acknowledge and disclose the truth of crimes against humanity and war crimes," and that it had "not fulfilled this obligation in regards to the 'comfort women. ' "

The three-day Tribunal was attended by over a thousand Japanese and oversees observers, broadly supported by the progressives in Japan as an important step towards reconciliation, and widely reported by Asian and European news media. However, the Japanese news media, both print and broadcast, did not give it high visibility, thus largely denying the survivors the acknowledgment sought (an exception was the Asahi Shimbun, which had first broached the issue in the early 90s). Alternative magazines, websites and mailing lists filled the gap for at least a small number of Japanese.

The NHK programme thus had an important educational role to play. From the planning stage in December until shortly before the broadcast in late January, it had included interviews with two historians and key footage from the Tribunal. However, the programme aired was severely altered from what VAWW-Net had agreed to collaborate on. VAWW-Net sought an explanation from NHK, to no avail. The censorship lawsuit VAWW-Net brought established that right-wing groups had harassed the producers and NHK. In this atmosphere, top NHK executives told Abe and other NHK budget-approving politicians about the programme and later solicited their input. Abe told NHK to make the programme 'more objective.'

Executives, clearly concerned about possible budget cuts, tried to comply at the last second by deleting large sections of the taped footage, changing captions, editing the historian's comments and adding commentary so to render unclear the original purpose and content, the verdict said. Plaintiffs noted that NHK executives had solicited lengthy statements by right-wing scholar Ikuhito Hata, suggesting that comfort women were in fact prostitutes and the Tribunal illegitimate, without giving other historians a chance to refute this claim. The broadcasted programme cast Hata as an expert on war-time history, though he is highly controversial, not least for his co-authorship of a revisionist history textbook (which is boycotted by most schools, but when approved for classroom use by the Ministry of Education, caused widespread anti-Japanese demonstrations in China). VAWW-Net also pointed out that right-wing groups boasted of their success at taking the backbone out of the program.

NHK maintains the last-minute changes made the program 'more objective' and vows to appeal what it calls an 'unacceptable judgment.'

VAWW-net considers the verdict a great victory in exposing the right-wing machinations and celebrated with a series of press conferences. Without such clarification, the NGO argued, it would have become taboo to even discuss the sexual slavery issue, preventing healing and reconciliation. The censorship court case received front page coverage in all major newspapers, though ironically many reports failed to explain what was censored (survivor testimonies, the guilty verdict for the Showa emperor, etc.) and the defamation of the survivors which the programme constituted.

Japan has a long history of women's movements and one of the biggest peace movements in Asia, with numerous large membership organizations. The country's Yasukuni Shrine. Current prime minister Abe is considered by many right-wingers one of their own, while he publicly cultivates an image of being on good terms with other Asian countries.

NHK, which is independently financed by user fees but has to have its budget approved by legislators, has been under attack from several sides--disgruntled viewers refuse to pay their fees until there is more accountability (with the Tribunal censorship issue and a number of financing scandals as their prominent complaints); workers complain about abuses of power within NHK; commercial broadcasters eye a bigger chunk of the airwaves, neoliberals want to prove the public service model leads to state-TV and privatize it, and the Abe government is trying to tighten its grip on NHK, in spite of constitutional guarantees of editorial independence. While mainstream papers attack the public broadcasters' kowtowing to the government, they rarely discuss commercial broadcasters' (to which the papers are linked) failure to seriously cover the Tribunal at all.

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