Photo/IllutrationLandfill work is under way off the Henoko district of Nago, Okinawa Prefecture, in Janunary. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

The prime minister’s office informed the Cabinet Press Club that a question raised by a Tokyo Shimbun reporter during a Dec. 26 news conference by Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga misstated the facts.

In a document issued two days later, the chief of the press office asked club members covering the prime minister’s office to “jointly share” in the awareness of the seriousness of the problematic act.

The document said the prime minister's office had repeatedly asked the Tokyo Shimbun to stop posing questions not based on facts. It criticized the question on Dec. 26 as “deplorable.”

But government news conferences are opportunities for journalists to ask officials questions to confirm facts. The officials can and should simply correct any misunderstandings on the part of questioners.

The request made by the prime minister’s office, which targeted a specific reporter and amounted to seeking restrictions on questions at news conferences, is an unreasonable and unacceptable act. This approach could lead to exclusion of journalists the government dislikes from future news conferences.

The question on Dec. 26 concerned work to relocate U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma from Ginowan, Okinawa Prefecture, to the Henoko district of Nago, also in the prefecture. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration has been pushing through the project despite strong opposition among people in Okinawa.

The Tokyo Shimbun reporter said “there has been a spreading of red soil runoff at the landfill site,” pointing out concerns about the possible harmful environmental effects of red soil in the earth and sand being dumped into the sea for land reclamation to build a new base, and asked what the government was planning to do about it.

The document issued by the prime minister’s office claims that measures have been taken to prevent water pollution from spreading to outside areas and argued that the reporter’s comment was inappropriate because it gave the impression that red soil runoff was causing water pollution.

But the Okinawa prefectural government is concerned about red soil runoff mixing with seawater in the area.

By refusing to offer an explanation about the situation on grounds of a “misunderstanding” of the facts, the prime minister’s office has acted in a manner that raises questions about its sincerity.

The office’s request that the press club “share in the awareness of the issue” is also wrongheaded.

The role of the press is to check whether power is exercised in a proper manner. The press club did exactly what it should do when it made clear its intention to reject any restriction on questions at government news conferences.

The chief cabinet secretary holds, in principle, two news conferences--one in the morning and another in the afternoon--each weekday.

As the government’s chief spokesman, the official has the responsibility to answer questions the media poses on behalf of the public. The two daily news conferences are supposed to fulfill this responsibility.

The government should understand that attempting to restrict journalistic freedom to ask questions is tantamount to a violation of the people’s right to know.

Shimbun Roren (Japan Federation of Newspaper Workers' Unions), an umbrella organization of labor unions at newspapers and news agencies, issued a strong protest against the action taken by the prime minister’s office on Feb. 5.

The federation pointed out the risk of the move setting a “bad precedent” and causing a nationwide spread of the attitude.

The Abe administration has been plagued by a raft of scandals--including those involving Moritomo Gakuen and Kake Educational Institution, two school operators linked to Abe and his wife, and the labor ministry’s statistical irregularities. In responding to the scandals, the administration has shown a clear reluctance to make serious efforts to uncover the truth.

The document issued by the prime minister’s office is nothing but another sign of the administration’s lack of commitment to providing honest and straightforward answers to questions among the public.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Feb. 8