Yesterday, 23 March 2020, in Room 712 of the Tokyo District Court, chief judge Mr. Hiroaki Tanaka read the main text of a judgment, "The court dismisses the plaintifffs appeal. The legal costs should be accounted for by the plaintiff." This decision is the result of a lawsuit by journalist Mr. Hideaki Kimura against The Asahi Shimbun Co. The court ruled in favor of the newspaper and rejected the journalistfs appeal.
In March 2018, the former Asahi reporter and current Waseda Chronicle (an independent, non-profit, investigative newsroom based in Tokyo) managing editor sued The Asahi Shimbun for libel. He and his attorney insisted that the retraction of an article written by Mr. Kimura and his colleague, Mr. Tomomi Miyazaki (who currently heads the monthly investigative journal FACTA) published by the Asahi on 20 May 2014, as well as the content of the article in the Asahifs 12 Sept. morning edition announcing its retraction, both fall under the category of defamation.
The article had revealed the harsh reality of the chaos at the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant during the 2011 disaster, using the testimony of then plant manager Mr. Masao Yoshida. It questioned who should be tasked with reigning in such a severe accident when respondersf lives are on the line - TEPCO, firefighters, Japanfs Self-Defense Force, or even the U.S.? The government had kept Mr. Yoshidafs testimony secret from the public, but the journalist got the document from a whistleblower.
From the release of the article until shortly before the press conference announcing its retraction on 11 September 2014, even the companyfs management recognized the high value of the scoop. On the other hand, there was increasing criticism of the article from rightwing writers and press sympathetic to the Abe Administration. The Asahifs president changed his opinion on the article suddenly and retracted it. Retraction is extremely rare in journalism. It can happen only in cases of false news, such as the Asahifs 1950 interview with Mr. Ritsu Ito, a leading member of the Japanese Communist Party, and who was in hiding at the time, which was a complete fabrication by the reporter.
Mr. Hideaki Kimura, the author of the retracted article, was punished because of the "mistake." He subsequently quit The Asahi Shimbun because he felt that it no longer supported investigative journalism. He aimed with the lawsuit to force the Asahi to reverse its retraction, so that social and political discussion about the severe nuclear disaster could take place once again. Under Japanese law, there was no other way than to sue the newspaper for libel to achieve this aim.
Now, what does the judgefs decision mean?
The judge avoided touching the core of an issue that occurred at a media institution, and instead entered into the question of interpretation of defamation. Again, the plaintiff insisted that "the retraction of the scoop against the author's will caused a notable fall in his social confidence as a journalist and damaged his reputation." However, the judge observed, following the position of the Asahi's counsel for the defense, that the content of the retraction announcement article didn't damage the reputation of the reporter, because the publication contains no particular passage of defamation against the reporter.
There is a difference in the ways of focusing on defamation. But it is easy to see that the judge tried to adopt the usual and narrow interpretation of defamation to throw out this case. The judge concluded that the plaintifffs claims fail under any premise, without entering into a discussion about the core points of the conflict. This is to say, they slammed the door in his face.
The decision shows a lack of understanding of journalism praxis and journalistic identity. Or rather, the judge wouldn't try to understand them. In this way, the judge and The Asahi Shimbun hand in hand rejected the professional dignity of the journalist.
It is strange to see that the 12-page decision spent one full page citing books written in Japanese by former New York Times Tokyo Bureau Chief Mr. Martin Fackler. Every quote referred to professional viewpoints regarding the Asahi's retraction. The judgefs decision said that Fackler's premises are not compatible with "standards based on ordinary awareness and literacy of general readers." This discourse must mean that the court rejects opinions that represent journalism as a profession.
Leaving the courthouse, the attorney for the journalist, Mr. Yoichi Kitamura (representative director of The Japan Civil Liberties Union), said, "Of course, we will appeal the decision to a high court." Another part of the journey for pursuing independent journalism in Japan through legal means has begun.
P Martin Fackler's article (available in full online) gives a detailed account of the Asahi's retraction of the scoop.
2 This piece is a kind of flash news for friends abroad. I will write a more detailed one with analysis and comments in Japanese soon.