Media Mix, March 29, 2020

Shiori Yamao

Here’s this week’s Media Mix about the government’s campaign to squelch any media stories that conflict with its own narrative about the coronavirus crisis. Since we first started working on this column several weeks ago, the situation has been even more fluid than we expected, and, not surprisingly, some of what we talked about may seem already dated. The Diet has, of course, passed the legislation that gives the prime minister power to declare a state of emergency to address the virus. He already had that power, but because it had been granted by a government that was not headed by the Liberal Democratic Party, Abe wanted newer, fresher powers, including those to control the media, so that it would look like something he came up with himself. The opposition parties, many of whose members used to belong to that previous government, grudgingly voted for the bill because they didn’t want to look as if they were uncooperative with measures to fight the spread of the virus, but one opposition lawmaker, Shiori Yamao, openly criticized the bill, saying its time limit for a declaration of emergency was too long and that it did not require Diet approval, so she voted against it. That move has made her something of an outlier even within the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, and there was speculation that she might leave the party and join another opposition force. Yamao has always been an iconoclast, even when she was mired in scandal, but her isolation from her peers due to her views is troubling.

In a sense, her situation mirrors that of those media entities who seem to be pushing back at the government PR campaign. Strangely enough, it’s been TV this time that has been the most resistant to government control. As the crisis becomes more serious, there is a kind of paradox that has left many journalists confused as to how they should report it. Abe now has the right to declare the kind of wide-sweeping powers that haven’t existed since World War II. The residue of that regime still lingers in people’s consciousness, even if they weren’t born yet, which is one of the reasons why the government has been hesitant to declare a lockdown even though many experts have called for one. During the debate over the emergency bill, it was TV that paid close attention to the preservation of individual rights, with TBS’s “News 23” leading the charge. The newspapers, despite Yoshiko Sakurai’s complaint, described in the first paragraph of the column, mostly held back. Now, everyone seems unsure of what to do, including the government. Though Tokyoites, for example, haven’t been heeding Governor Koike’s “request” to self-isolate and avoid crowds as much as they should, there remains a strong hesitation to invoke emergency powers, but now that the Olympics is postponed it isn’t clear if that hesitation is due to nervousness over the state of the economy or to the aforementioned queasiness of being seen as returning to authoritarian tactics. It could, of course, be a combination of both or something entirely different, but with the media in self-imposed caution mode, it’s difficult to know.

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