Japan's House of Representatives passed the controversial State Secrecy Protection Bill on Tuesday, November 26, 2013 at the plenary session. The session began in the evening, five hours after its originally scheduled time, due to opposition party requests to withdraw the legislation.
The bill will introduce harsher punishments for leaking national secrets related to defense, diplomacy, counter-terrorism, and counter-espionage. The bill uses a definition of “special secret” that is vague and broad. It remains unclear how information will be categorized as such, and what entities will be charged with this task.
Human rights advocates, journalists, and citizens in Japan and worldwide have expressed strong opposition to the bill. Locally, it has hit a nerve among those who were most affected by the March 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster. According to numerous sources, government officials systematically limited reporting on environmental conditions following the disaster, to the detriment of many peoples’ health.
Commenting on the bill on his blog [ja], journalist Ryusaku Tanaka quoted Tamotsu Baba, the mayor of Namie town in Fukushima prefecture, looking back on the Fukushima disaster. The mayor reflected on the painful experience that resulted from the lack of public information immediately following the disaster:
[After the earthquake and nuclear accident in March 2011], The SPEEDI information was not made public promptly, and residents were not able to make use of the SPEEDI information. There might have been other ways to operate evacuation if the information had been made public. The agreement of TEPCO and [the local government] to report was not kept. All of our rights― right pursuit happiness, right to live, right to property―were violated. Information should be made public to protect human rights. Anything that can be brought to light should be. The legislative measure should be more careful. It is crucial that officials discuss this with the public.
The Lower House held a public hearing before the special committee for national security in Fukushima City, shortly before the vote. Community representatives at the hearing expressed strong opposition to the bill.
In an interview [ja] with Our Planet TV, a non-profit online broadcast station, Mayor Baba said that while he appreciated the fact that the hearing was held in Fukushima, he felt that the hearing “is almost like a stunt.”
The bill has an impressive range of critics around the world. The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights called the bill a threat to transparency and the New York Times called it “illiberal.” Journalism professor Yasuhiko Tajima charged that it would go against Tshwane Principles, a set of global principles covering national security and the right to information. The bill has also been criticized by former United States National Security Council member Morton Halperin [ja].
After earning approval from an ad-hoc Lower House committee on Tuesday morning, the bill passed the lower house in the evening of the same day with strong support from the Liberal Democratic Party. Meanwhile, protesters held a vigil out side of the Diet to show their opposition to the bill.
Video footage of the bill's hasty approval in the committee on the morning November 26 was uploaded on Youtube by user named fukusima311.
Rights advocates, journalists, and citizens fear that the law could restrict right to information before what is already considered a non-transparent government. Reporters Without Borders’ 2013 Press Freedom Index ranked Japan at 53 in April. The report highlighted the lack of transparency and access to information, particularly on information related to Fukushima.
PEN International released a statement last week, pointing out that the bill may not necessarily be about protecting secrets.
The Japanese government’s “Designated Secrets Bill” is not about the needs of the state or real secrets or the protection of the public good. It seems to be about politicians and employees of the state hiding behind an inflated idea of secrecy and an obsession with security verging on the hysterical, all in order to gather more power for themselves by undermining the rights of citizens to information and to free speech.
Agence France-Presse quoted Prime Minister Shinzo Abe insisting that the bill would neither restrict media freedom nor encourage authorities to “arbitrarily” designate information as restricted. Abe also has said it is vital for Japan to prepare a legal framework for exchanging sensitive information with other countries.
Counter intelligence guidelines adopted [ja] in August 2007 by Japan's Counter Intelligence Promotion Committee [temporary translation] include approximately 420,000 pieces of “secret” information, mostly consisting of space satellite images and cryptogram. Abe said that secret information would be selected strictly, urging people not worry about an over classification of data as “secret”.
The bill now awaits debate and a vote in Upper House, expected to take place in early December.