The Supreme Court has upheld the constitutionality of a legal requirement that all TV owners in Japan must pay subscription fees to Japan Broadcasting Corp. (NHK).

In a ruling handed down Dec. 6, the top court’s Grand Bench said the Broadcast Law provision that requires individuals who have installed TV reception equipment in their homes to sign subscription contracts with the public broadcaster was constitutional.

The court rejected the argument made by a TV viewer who was sued by NHK after refusing to pay subscription fees. The defendant contended that the provision violates the Constitution, which guarantees the right to freely enter into contracts.

At the heart of the ruling is the Supreme Court’s recognition of the importance of public broadcasting.

The court decided that it is reasonable for the law to establish a system to require all TV viewers to share equally in the burden of financing NHK’s operations to protect the public broadcaster from any influence or control by specific individuals or state or other organizations.

The problem, however, is that there is a serious gap between the court’s ideas about the role and responsibility of a public broadcaster as described in the ruling and the reality of NHK.

A string of scandals and episodes have raised serious questions concerning NHK’s journalistic ethics.

Senior NHK executives, for example, modified the content of a program on wartime sexual violence after meeting politicians to listen to their opinions.

Former NHK President Katsuto Momii is remembered for remarks and actions that indicated his cozy relationship with the powers that be, including, “We cannot say left when the government says right.”

The broadcaster has also been denounced for excessive and inappropriate attempts to boost the impact of programs and even fraudulent expenses claims by employees.

During the trial, NHK maintained that the current mandatory subscription fee system to secure its stable revenue is essential for its efforts to offer unbiased and impartial programs to viewers without worrying too much about program ratings or playing up to the government and people in power.

Each and every member of NHK needs to do soul-searching and reality checks to determine whether they have actually been providing news reports and programs that meet these criteria amid growing political attacks and interventions against the media in recent years.

The radically changing environment surrounding the media is making the public increasingly skeptical and critical about the NHK fee program.

Still, many Japanese pay the fee because they hold out hope that NHK may offer programs that promote citizens’ right to know from different viewpoints from those of commercial broadcasters and contribute to the maturity and development of democracy in this nation.

If the majority of the public feels disillusioned with NHK, the foundation of the fee system would collapse. People working for the public broadcaster should take this risk very seriously.

It is the duty of citizens and viewers to closely monitor NHK's operations to assess their appropriateness and also the actions of politicians to check if they are doing something that can undermine the roles and functions of the public broadcaster. We are responsible to protest against such acts.

Recently, NHK has been criticized for pursuing a business strategy focused only on its own interests. It has been, for instance, trying to expand its operations without considering the postwar history of broadcasting in Japan, which has been supported by a dual structure in which NHK and commercial broadcasters play clearly differentiated roles.

The trial on NHK fees has drawn renewed public attention to the mission of the public broadcaster.

What kind of role NHK should perform in the coming years? Are the scale of its organization and its business operations really appropriate from this point of view?

The Supreme Court ruling should lead to broad and in-depth public debate on these fundamental issues, which NHK has failed to address head-on.

The Asahi Shimbun, Dec. 7