The words from the new chairman of Japan Broadcasting Corp. (NHK) sparked outrage in Japan and overseas. Media organizations questioned whether the public broadcaster could be politically neutral under such a leader while politicians demanded his resignation.
But viewers who depend entirely on NHK for their news had to wait days to learn about the controversy.
It took NHK three days to first report on the situation, and that came only after the broadcaster had shown a live Diet plenary session of lawmakers criticizing NHK Chairman Katsuto Momii on Jan. 28.
NHK’s next news report on the issue was aired on Jan. 31, after it broadcast a Lower House Budget Committee session, which showed an opposition member questioning whether the public broadcaster was becoming a lap dog for the government and the NHK chairman’s refusal to step down.
NHK customarily covers Lower House Budget Committee sessions live.
Momii was called to appear before the Diet on Jan. 31 to explain the comments he made at his first news conference as NHK head on Jan. 25.
In its evening news program on Jan. 25, NHK only carried Momii’s comment: “I will make efforts to abide by the Broadcast Law, which calls for political neutrality and fairness.”
However, NHK did not mention Momii’s remarks on South Korea’s demands that Japan compensate former “comfort women” who had provided sex for Japanese military personnel before and during World War II. Momii said he was puzzled by Seoul’s demands, adding that all nations at war had similar comfort women systems.
During his first news conference, Momii also indicated that NHK’s international broadcasts would not stray from the government’s position on territorial disputes and seemed to defend Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s recent visit to war-related Yasukuni Shrine.
“It would not do for us to say ‘left’ when the government is saying ‘right,’” the NHK chairman said.
Momii also said he wanted to retract all of his comments when informed by reporters that the news conference was an official one marking his new post as NHK chairman.
On Jan. 28, the public broadcaster carried Diet proceedings in which Banri Kaieda, the head of opposition Democratic Party of Japan, asked Abe and other Cabinet ministers about Momii’s remarks.
Three days later, on Jan. 31, DPJ member Kazuhiro Haraguchi bombarded Momii with criticism in the Lower House Budget Committee session aired by NHK.
Haraguchi was once internal affairs and communications minister who oversaw NHK as well as other television networks.
The DPJ lawmaker said Momii did not have the background to serve as NHK chairman. Haraguchi also pointed to two comments that Momii made in his first news conference as evidence that he had violated Article 4 of the Broadcast Law, which stipulates that all broadcasting companies must exercise political fairness.
One remark concerned the state secrets protection law that was enacted in December despite heavy public opposition.
Momii said at the news conference, “Since it passed, it is useless to argue about it now.”
Momii on Jan. 25 also saw no problems with Abe’s visit to Yasukuni Shrine, which memorializes Japan’s war dead along with 14 Class-A war criminals. Abe’s visit further soured Japan’s relations with China and South Korea.
“Since the prime minister made the visit based on his beliefs, that in itself is all right,” Momii said. “All we can do is to simply say the prime minister visited Yasukuni, period.”
In the Jan. 31 Diet session, Momii apologized for his comments, saying, “My personal opinions and views will not be reflected in broadcasting by NHK.”
On topics in which views are divided, he said, “We will handle the issues fairly by clarifying the points of contention from as wide a range of opinions as possible.”
However, Momii stopped short of saying he would resign to take responsibility for his remarks.
He also explained that the comment about the state secrets protection law was his personal opinion, and stressed that he had retracted his remarks about comfort women.
Regarding Momii’s remark about NHK saying “left” when the government said “right,” Haraguchi asked, “Would not such a stance make NHK a media lap dog of the government?”
Momii responded, “We will continue our broadcasts from various perspectives.”
Kenichiro Hamada, chairman of NHK’s Board of Governors, which has the authority to appoint and dismiss the NHK chairman, was also asked to attend the Jan. 31 Lower House Budget Committee session.
Five of the 12 NHK governors were named by Abe and approved by the Diet in November 2013, including writer Naoki Hyakuta and Michiko Hasegawa, professor emeritus at Saitama University, whose views on Japan’s history are similar to those of the prime minister.
Hamada explained that at a Jan. 28 Board of Governors meeting, Momii was told: “Expressing your personal opinions on items on which there are various views is an act that plays down the importance of the head of the public broadcaster. We hope you will sufficiently understand your own position.”
Hamada added that the board concluded that Momii was still appropriate as NHK chairman.
However, Haraguchi was not satisfied.
“Considering the contents of his remarks, he is saying things that are similar to what the Abe administration is doing,” Haraguchi said.
He also asked Abe for his view about the decision to keep Momii as NHK chairman.
“We will leave it up to the board since we asked members to join it,” the prime minister said. “I should not give various instructions to the governors.”
'ABANDONING ROLE TO VIEWERS'
But the criticism continued against Momii and NHK.
Kaori Hayashi, a professor of mass media and journalism studies at the University of Tokyo, questioned the public broadcaster’s failure to report Momii’s controversial remarks in its news programs.
“I was surprised by the manner of reporting that seemed to give the impression that there was no comment (that could be called into question concerning political neutrality). That was an abandoning of NHK’s role to its viewers,” Hayashi said in response to questions from The Asahi Shimbun.
“Putting aside whether a value judgment should have been made, NHK should have touched upon the fact that such comments were made, and failing to do so is equivalent to denying its public nature as a media organization,” she said.
In contrast to NHK, commercial TV networks have carried reports about Momii’s remarks in their news programs on an almost daily basis.
In its Jan. 31 evening news program, NHK showed Haraguchi’s question about the state secrets protection law.
The news report also included Momii’s responses about how he had prefaced his comment as being his personal view since he was asked repeatedly about the law. In addition, NHK showed Momii’s apology for the comment and his excuse that he was unfamiliar with conducting news conferences as NHK chairman.
Regarding NHK’s broadcasting stance toward Momii’s initial remarks, the broadcaster released a statement to The Asahi Shimbun that said: “The chairman said his personal views would not be reflected in NHK broadcasting. We will take that matter into consideration in our reporting and make the appropriate decision when it is needed.”
(Daisuke Shimizu and Yuri Imamura contributed to this article.)
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