Photo/IllutrationChief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga responds to a question at his daily news conference. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

Journalists are pushing back at what they describe as the prime minister’s office attempt to stifle press freedom and punish a reporter who had asked the government a tough question.

The prime minister’s office said in a document that the question raised by a Tokyo Shimbun reporter on Dec. 26 was based on a misunderstanding of the facts. It asked press club members covering the prime minister’s office to acknowledge the problematic act and to “jointly share” in the awareness of the seriousness of the issue.

Shimbun Roren (Japan Federation of Newspaper Workers' Union) issued a protest on Feb. 5 that said the office’s request “was a move to narrow the public’s ‘right to know’ and was therefore totally unacceptable.”

The press club at the prime minister’s office said it could never go along with any restrictions on questions by reporters.

The question that apparently offended the prime minister's office was asked at Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga’s daily news conference and concerned work to relocate the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma from Ginowan, Okinawa Prefecture, to the Henoko district of Nago, also in the prefecture.

The Tokyo Shimbun reporter said “there has been a spreading of red soil runoff at the landfill site,” and she asked what the government was planning to do about it.

The prime minister’s office said in the document that the reporter’s comment was inappropriate because it gave the impression that the red soil runoff was causing water pollution.

The document said there was the possibility that her comment might spread a mistaken understanding of the facts to both domestic and international audiences, noting that the news conference was transmitted over the Internet.

The office then asked the press club “to share in the awareness of the issue.”

The opposition Democratic Party for the People asked high-ranking public relations officials of the prime minister’s office about the document.

One official said there was no intent to limit the questions from a specific reporter.

However, Akira Minami, chairman of Shimbun Roren, said the document was intended to not only remove the individual reporter but also cause other reporters to refrain from asking tough questions.

“Reporters ask their questions based on the information they have at the time, so it is wrong to ask for 100 percent accuracy,” Minami said. “It is the government that should be giving responses based on accurate information.”

The Tokyo Shimbun reporter has continued to attend Suga’s daily news conferences and ask questions.

However, Minami said the moderator of the news conferences often interrupts her questions and asks that her queries be as brief as possible.

“That is virtually interference,” Minami said. “From that background, it is clear the latest document is an extension of such past acts.”

Tokyo Shimbun officials declined to comment on the document because it was directed at the press club and not their publication.

An expert on freedom of speech said the prime minister’s office was clearly trying to exert pressure on the reporter.

“By submitting the request to the press club, which is a gathering of reporters, there was an attempt to clamp down on the overall media as well as to indirectly seek loyalty toward the administration,” said Kenta Yamada, a professor at Senshu University in Tokyo. “Any attempt by the government to control information by forcing its legitimacy on others can never be allowed.”