June 7, 2021 at 15:50 JST
Shunzo Morishita speaks at a news conference as chief of public broadcaster Japan Broadcasting Corp.’s Board of Governors in Tokyo on March 9. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)
The top decision-making body overseeing Japan Broadcasting Corp. (NHK) has been dragging its feet for up to four months on releasing records of its discussions concerning a controversy related to the public broadcaster’s editorial independence.
The delaying tactics used by NHK’s Board of Governors has prolonged confusion and deepened distrust of the body and raised doubts about its qualifications to govern the public broadcaster.
The records in question are minutes of the board’s discussions that led to a stern warning in autumn 2018 to Ryoichi Ueda, then the president of NHK, over a program on how post offices were selling insurance policies to the elderly and others by deploying devious methods.
After the program was aired, Japan Post Holdings Co. lodged complaints to the Board of Governors. In response, the board criticized the manner in which NHK collected information and produced the program. The board’s action is suspected to constitute illegal interference in the editorial policies of NHK’s programming, which is banned by the Broadcasting Law.
Refusing to release the minutes should not be an option for the board. A third-party panel set up by NHK on information disclosure and protection of personal information pressured the board twice, in its recommendations made in May last year and in February this year, to fully publish the details of the discussions.
The panel’s recommendations rejected the board’s argument that it could not disclose the information because the discussions were made under the assumption that they would not be disclosed.
The panel pointed out that the board is accountable to the broad viewing public and contended that it should not frame the issue as a matter that can only be discussed candidly behind closed doors.
The panel effectively said the board should swiftly publish the minutes for the sake of its own operational credibility because there is doubt about how it discussed the issue.
The panel made a very compelling case for disclosure of the information.
It is composed of five experts including a scholar in information law and a former Supreme Court justice. It is appointed by NHK’s president with the consent of the board.
NHK’s information disclosure rules say the panel’s opinion should be respected in making decisions on whether to disclose specific information.
Since the panel’s second recommendation, the board has held eight meetings. When asked about the reason for not publishing the minutes in a Diet session last month, Shunzo Morishita, chairman of the board, who was previously president of Nippon Telegraph and Telephone West Corp., said since the board was meeting online the members were unable to adequately read the materials.
His remarks were tantamount to contempt for the Diet members, representatives of the people, and offer good reason to dismiss him.
The board’s behavior can only be regarded as an attempt to buy time until the end of the Diet session so that it can avoid facing questions from lawmakers over some embarrassing facts about the discussions among its members on the issue back then.
Is it betting that both the Diet and the public will forget about the issue as it continues delaying the decision?
In January, the Board of Governors approved a new NHK business plan promising a reduction in viewing fees in fiscal 2023.
Amid political pressure, NHK’s management team abruptly proposed the fee cut, which would have impacts on both people’s lives and NHK’s operations. But the board swiftly approved the plan after asking the management only a few questions about it.
In contrast, the board has been discussing what to do with the minutes for more than a year. This is simply baffling.
The responsibility of the board, composed of 12 members including the chairman, is to monitor and check the public broadcaster’s management and business operations on behalf of the viewers. We need to know whether the members deserve to represent the viewers and are carrying out their tasks in a manner suitable for their important role.
The board should immediately disclose the minutes in their entirety in line with the panel’s recommendation so that the public can make its own verdict on its performance.
--The Asahi Shimbun, June 5
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