Monthly Archives: November, 2016


Japan’s state secrecy laws still a secret

Aditi Razdan

Politics | East Asia


In the first year after Japan’s State Secrecy Law was enacted, various ministers and agencies classified 382 issues as state secrets.  The law is well into its second year, yet we still don’t know what actually constitutes a ‘state secret’.

Prime Minister Abe railroaded the Act on the Protection of Specially Designated Secrets (SDS) through the Diet, or Japanese parliament, in spite of 80% opposition from the Japanese public.  

As of December 2014, whistle-blowers can be imprisoned for 10 years if they leak state secrets, and journalists publishing this information face upto five years in jail and a hefty fine. The law targets terrorism, espionage and defence leaks, and at first glance, it is familiar and expected given the current reality of transnational crime and terrorism.  

Yet the media watchdog, Reporters Without Borders, have warned that the law is an “unprecedented threat to freedom of information” and an “obstruction of peoples’ right to know.”

[related_article align="right" show_image="yes" index=1 text="Japan’s idol industry reaches a new level of danger"]

So what makes this law potentially destructive?  It’s because it makes Abe and his administration the judge, jury and enforcers.  

The ambiguity of the law extends beyond the definition of a state secret. Government ministers and agencies determine what a state secret is, and oversight of these decisions is managed by a panel and committee appointed by Abe.  In actions that do not resemble the democratic principles Japan has been lauded for, there has been little public consultation, no parliamentary consensus on what a state secret is, and a lack of transparency in the law’s operation.  

Alarmingly, any agency or government minister can store a secret for 30-60 years.  This time period is longer than the tenure of a regular bureaucrat or politician, bestowing power to a government far beyond their democratically elected time in office.

Freedom of speech is enshrined in Japan’s post-war constitution; it has cemented Japan’s place as a free, democratic society and ensured trust in media and politics.  This recent law shifts the norm, making freedom of speech conditional and communication between politics and wider society a condition of the government.  

In a meeting, the Executive Controller of International Relations for state broadcaster NHK, Akinori Hashimoto, admitted that there was always tension between “politicians and journalists, but freedom of speech and competitive media ensured these tensions were stabilized”.  However, with these most recent laws, it is unlikely that the media could compete with each-other for so-called state-secrets, let alone compete with the government.

This has implications for every level of information gathering.  Whilst Hashimoto maintained that the state broadcaster remained independent, he revealed that the new laws “make it harder to find sources in the bureaucracy”.  The law is quietly strangling potential critique in a time where Abe has a sweeping grip on power.  Scrutiny is at the heart of democracy, and without it, Abe’s choices go unchallenged.  

This chilling effect is arguably more damaging than the law itself.  It is the threat of revealing a state secret that deters whistle-blowers and journalists, and the threat of breaking the new laws.  In such a way the ambiguity of the SDS was likely intentional to allow for discretionary operation by ministers and government agencies, as well as acting as a mechanism that scares people into silence.   

A state of fear and distrust is contagious.  

And where will people seek remedy? The only place that has answers-the government. This is the fastest way to reverse a culture where facts are dissected, truth is grappled with and opinions are not coerced.  

Katsumi Sawada is  a reporter from Japan’s oldest newspaper Mainichi Shimbon.  In his opinion, “The law shows that the influence of Abe has increased, as his personal opinions have influenced the law.”  Personal opinions should not override the opposition of a 100 million citizens.  But in a post-2014 Japan, it seems Abe’s do.  

Ordinarily, a country would have counter-measures that protect journalists and their sources from this type of law.  This source of protection is non-existent in Japan.  Furthermore, there is no “public interest override” that would recognize circumstances where the public interest outweighs any potential harms of disclosure.

It is difficult to measure the effects this law has had on free media in Japan.  When a state secret itself is not defined, it is nearly impossible to determine what media outlets can no longer report on. What is clear however is that this law, in all its vagueness, signals that the government are the ultimate arbiters of what is free and what is not.  This is blatant overreach and something that Japanese citizens did not choose.

In a time of constitutional change previously unseen in Japan’s post-war history, confusion over Japan’s nuclear energy plans and continued mismanagement of Fukushima relief efforts, open debate and dissent is crucial.  However, a monopoly on truth does make it much easier to govern.

4 minute read

Read more

Respect Timor, Leste ye be judged

Dominic Huntley

Politics | Southeast Asia


Australia's relationship with our newest neighbour has reached a critical juncture. Timor Leste has successfully forced Australia into a conciliation at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague over maritime boundary disputes, and now Australia will be required to justify to the world its maritime claims, and to itself the righteousness of bullying a nation it often claims to have liberated.
The specific delineation of maritime boundaries in the Timor Gap is nothing new. In 1989, during Indonesia's rule of Timor Leste, a treaty was signed which gave Australia expansive sovereignty over much of the sea, including the rich seabed resources that are valued at some US $10 billion.
Since Timor Leste's independence the treaty has been revised twice, in 2002 and 2006. The 2006 treaty included the stipulation that no renegotiation occur for 50 years. In 2012 however revelations of Australian spying during the treaty negotiations prompted Timor Leste to seek revisions to the treaty due to the feeling that it had been signed under unfair circumstances.
Australian perfidy has not been just limited to spying but has also included a cynical withdrawal from compulsory dispute resolution procedures under the UN conventions on the law of the sea (UNCLOS) a mere two months before Timor Leste became independent in 2002. Australia has also been highly reluctant to accept international arbitration, claiming that the Permanent Court of Arbitration has no jurisdiction.
The irony of holding such a position in the face of Australia's strong support for the recent ruling in the Hague on disputed territory in the South China Sea and Australia's strong support for it appears lost on the Australian government.

For Timor Leste this is just another challenge to be faced in gaining recognition as an independent nation. A nation that was colonised for four centuries and then occupied for two decades must once again prove itself worthy of its own existence. Ironically of its two neighbours it is former ruler Indonesia which has demonstrated a willingness to renegotiate boundaries.
For Australia however this issue is not just about maritime boundaries, or even Australia's role as an international actor. This sort of issue cuts right to the heart of that most domestic issue of national identity. What sort of country does Australia want to be? What does it mean to be Australian?
Australia, like all the Western settler societies, has a historic tension in its identity. The juxtaposition of Enlightenment values and the extraordinary racial and gendered hypocrisy has resonated throughout the last 228 years of European presence on this continent.
This has applied to Australia's approach to its neighbours just as much as its approach to people at home. Australia was a proud colonial power for some eight decades, and abducted tens of thousands of South Pacific Islanders to work in conditions reminiscent of the antebellum American South.
The transformation of Australian society since the 1960s has been perhaps the most extraordinary and valuable events in this nation's history. A nation that loudly proclaimed its 'whiteness' has become one that enshrines the rhetoric of cosmopolitanism, truly the greatest achievement of our society.
It is however a work far from complete. A short excursion to the Top End, or indeed, a short conversation with anyone not a middle-class, White Anglo-Saxon male will show that there are still enormous gaps in privilege and power between different segments of our society.
This is replicated in our government's approach to the maritime dispute. A rich and powerful country like Australia has the responsibility to support our much weaker, vastly poorer neighbors. Attempting to gain advantage at the expense of a country such as Timor Leste is more a hallmark of imperialism than of the modern society we purport to be.
For a country with a history like Australia, there are a thousand and one hurdles to cross before it can be absolved of past sins. Missing even one is unjustifiable, but this is surely one of the bigger ones.
Australia not only takes on the role of a regional leader in the development, but views itself as being the sort of country that does those things. This identity can never be justified so long as we treat our neighbors with the sort of arrogance and disrespect that we are showing Timor Leste and its people.
Australian leaders should also remember the legacies of their predecessors, and how those people are now viewed. How many today laud the achievements of Billy Hughes or Stanley Bruce? How many are nostalgic for the days of Australian colonialism in the Pacific?
The answer is about the same as how many will be proud of our actions in the Timor Gap when our children come to write the history books.

4 minute read

Read more

Seeing the elephant

Economics | South Asia


“Seeing the elephant” is a 19th century American saying, meaning the gaining of world experience at a significant cost. It originated from travelling circuses, where curious people would pay exorbitant sums to literally, see the elephant.
Today there is an altogether different sort of elephant, one for which the cost is incurred when it is not seen. The identity of this pachyderm is, of course, India.

4 minute read

Read more

Back to Top