monday, 9 december of 2013

Japan passes controversial secrecy law


Japan passes controversial secrecy law

Japan has approved a controversial official secrets law that prime minister Shinzo Abe says is crucial to strengthening national defence but which was bitterly opposed by journalists, academics and many ordinary Japanese.

As protesters chanted outside parliament, the upper chamber passed the law in a late-night session on Friday, after days of raucous debate in which legislators scuffled in committee meetings and an outnumbered opposition boycotted decisive votes. The lower house passed the bill under similar circumstances last month.

The uproar over the bill, which gives government agencies broad new powers to classify secrets and toughens penalties for officials who leak them, has eroded what had been unusually high support ratings for Mr Abe’s year-old administration.

Polls suggested that half of voters opposed the bill, compared to less than one-third who supported it. Mr Abe’s popularity ratings have fallen from close to 70 per cent to about 50 per cent in recent weeks.

The swift passage of the bill – it made its way through parliament in less than a month, an unusually short period in Japan – highlights the forceful hold over Japanese politics exercised by Mr Abe after a half-decade of weak and shortlived administrations.

It is also a reminder that the conservative Mr Abe is willing to spend the political capital he has accumulated through his “Abenomics” programme of economic stimulus to advance more contentious security and social causes.

The prime minister has argued that Japan needs tougher rules on the handling of state secrets to allow government agencies to co-ordinate with one another and with the US, Japan’s closest military ally and protector. A new inter-agency National Security Council, based on the American model, began operating last week.

During parliamentary debate on the bill, Mr Abe sought to strengthen his case by referring to China’s creation of a new “air defence identification zone” (ADIZ) in the East China Sea that covers Japanese-administered islands claimed by Beijing.

“In responding to China’s ADIZ, we need to debate whether Japan’s defence capabilities are adequate, and there are many secrets involved,” he said. “If politicians leak them, they will be punished.”

The law mandates jail sentences of up to 10 years for public officials who leak “specially designated secrets” related to defence, diplomacy and terrorism, compared with a maximum one-year sentence under existing rules. It extends the power to classify such secrets, currently possessed only by the defence ministry, to all departments.

Secrets remain classified for five years but the period can be extended at a ministry’s discretion, with cabinet approval required for extensions beyond 30 years.

Criticism has focused on the wide discretion that the law gives the government to decide what should be kept secret and what many say are inadequate oversight mechanisms to prevent abuse. Amendments including language to protect journalists and the creation of an outside auditing panel with as-yet undefined powers have done little to mollify opponents.

“This law seriously harms the public’s right to know,” said Banri Kaieda, head of the Democratic Party of Japan, the largest opposition party.

Ichiro Ozawa, another opposition leader, said of Mr Abe’s ruling coalition, “If they want to soothe people’s concerns, they should let debate continue. Their behaviour is juvenile and arrogant.”

(Published by Financial Times – December 8, 2013)

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