By Jon Day
TOKYO, Feb. 6 (Xinhua) -- Japan's national public broadcaster NHK has once again found itself in hot water as a recent slew of gaffes involving members of its board have culminated in one of the 12 single-handedly destroying the fabric of a media institution once globally revered for its high standards of broadcasting, based around a clear ethos of integrity and neutrality.
Such an ethos is now being questioned as the publicly funded broadcaster has seen three of its board members, all hand-picked by the government for their positions, erode domestic and international faith in the institution's former impartial programming foundations.
Naoki Hyakuta, a novelist and member of the NHK board after being hand-picked by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, himself a hawkish conservative, last year dumbfounded the global media community, politicians and the public alike, by unabashedly stating the Nanjing Massacre"never happened."
Hyakuta made the benighted comments in a stump speech in Tokyo while he was supporting a right-wing candidate in the upcoming gubernatorial elections in Japanese capital. "In 1938, Chiang Kai-shek tried to publicize Japan's responsibility for the Nanking Massacre, but the nations of the world ignored him. Why? Because it never happened," the NHK executive was quoted by the Asahi Shimbun newspaper as saying.
Further stoking the fires of controversy, as Abe has set about revising textbooks in Japanese schools to gloss over certain parts of its militaristic history, Hyakuta said with reference to denying the Nanjing Massacre ever happened, there was"no need to teach such things in schools."
The primary officers in charge of the mass slaughters, rapes and looting by Japan's Imperial Forces in Nanjing during the World War II in 1937, that, according to incontrovertible records,saw some 300,000 lives lost, were indicted before the International Military Tribunal for the Far East and the Nanjing War Crimes Tribunal for flagrantly breaching The Hague Convention. "Hyakuta's offhanded comments were utterly disgraceful and a major embarrassment to NHK who have, for the best part, been a trustworthy and reliable broadcaster. Moreover, they're an embarrassment for regular Japanese who know and feel real contrition over the true facts regarding the atrocities caused by Japanese troops in Nanjing," said political analyst Teruhisa Muramatsu. "Hyakuta's comments are tantamount to someone denying the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or someone, of both authority and education, picked to oversee a national broadcasting institution, refuting the holocaust ever happened. It's ridiculous and shameful," Muramatsu told Xinhua.
He went on to say that whether the comments were made in an individual, professional or political capacity, it has no bearing on the devastation they've caused, because as a board member of NHK, anything he says or does in public is under scrutiny and reflects the perceived ideology of NHK, be this his intentional or not. "It's almost inconceivable that an NHK executive could make such a horrendous gaffe. There's no backtracking on that. He's (Hyakuta) outed himself as an ignorant, unworldly individual and also brought the government into question for selecting him in the first place. It's a shambles," added a foreign editor of a prominent newspaper here, requesting anonymity. "On the back of Katsuto Momii's comments I see no way forward for NHK other than the government forcing the 12 board members to resign and figuring out a more democratic way to select its new board, rather than cherry-picking bureaucrats who have no business working in the broadcasting world," he said.
The comments made by NHK new chief Momii flagrantly glossed over Japan's forcible conscription and use of comfort women during World War II.
Momii told a news conference to mark his appointment on Jan. 26 that "comfort women" existed in any country at war and blasted South Korea for continuing to call for compensation for these women, claiming the matter had already been concluded with the signing of a peace treaty.
Momii finally retracted his remarks, but along with Hyakuta's latest outburst, observers here say the damage to NHK is irreversible, compounded by the fact that NHK itself didn't report on Momii's comments until three days later.
Indeed, some media and political analysts are starting to believe that the lines between NHK's neutrality and the government 's right-leaning stance are becoming dangerously blurred.
A prominent Japan-based political commentator and author from Britain recently told Xinhua that NHK refutes claims that it is a state broadcaster, and while its board doesn't oversee the day-to- day operations of the broadcaster, its annual budget is subject to parliamentary approval.
It would appear that we're seeing a clear and contrived government-led shift in public broadcasting in Japan as NHK basically answers to parliament, which, to a degree, equates to its chief and its board answering directly to Abe and his administration, and this will filter down NHK's hierarchy to journalists, reporters and researchers, the expert said.
This issue was evidenced recently when a veteran radio show host quit his job at NHK after the program director instructed him not to discuss nuclear power for fear his comments "would affect voting behavior" in the upcoming Tokyo gubernatorial election, despite the pros and cons of nuclear issues being one of the major platforms the candidates are currently campaigning on.
"The media should choose various issues especially during the campaign," said Toru Nakakita, a professor of economics at Tokyo University, who was the former host of the Business Outlook segment prior to quitting.
"If they don't, voters will go to the polls with no information to base their judgments on. Isn't it the mission of the news organizations to have the guts to give more information to the public?" the popular ex-radio host said in a recent interview on the matter.
Along with Nakakita, other media professionals at NHK have felt they have been "gagged" when it comes to discussing certain topics, as Momii has openly said that he will tow the government line when it comes to broadcasting -- in direct contravention to the institution's long-standing objective and neutral broadcasting principles.
Momii has previously declared that the broadcaster might focus more air time on covering Japan's views on territorial disputes with both China and South Korea, stating that he will do the government's bidding if asked, which seriously brings the public broadcaster's pledge of neutrality, impartiality and objective news reporting into question. "It would not do for NHK to say left when the government says right," Momii said when asked on the broadcaster's official programming stance henceforth on the current territorial standoffs with China and South Korea.
Concerns are now rife that Momii and NHK are heading towards a new right-leaning programming policy, as called for by Abe who has faced criticism from nationalist factions within his government for NHK airing programs deemed to liberal.
Those working at NHK are troubled by such a shift, but reports of its implementation have been rapidly surfacing and fears are rife that other media institutions could find themselves also unable to avoid becoming the government's political mouthpieces.
British radio personality here Peter Barakan, known for his NHK programs and commercial radio sets, was quoted as saying on a recent broadcast that he, like Nakakita, had been pressured by programming directors on multiple occasions not to discuss nuclear power.
Political and media observers here are beginning to conclude that NHK might indeed be falling into line with Abe's nationalist and revisionist agenda. "A quarter of NHK board members have already revealed they have far-right leaning tendencies," said Muramatsu, referring to yet another scandal involving an NHK bigwig.
Michiko Hasegawa, another NHK board member, heaped praise on Shusuke Nomura, who was an ultra-rightwing nationalist who committed ritual suicide in the offices of the Asahi Shimbun newspaper in 1993. "Under such an openly nationalistic board of directors, hand- picked by the government to oversee one of the world's biggest broadcasters, it will become increasingly harder for NHK to maintain its credibility as a neutral, unbiased and trustworthy source of information," Muramatsu said. "Abe's reach is already too deep. The role of the media to virtuously ensure the checks and balances of its government and in this case these are quickly being eroded. If this is already happening at NHK, it doesn't bode well for privately owned and other commercial media organizations," the expert concluded.