The state secrets law came into effect on Wednesday, Dec. 10. The law will be put into practice amid remaining fears that the people’s right to know and freedom of the press might be threatened. The government set guidelines for enforcing the law a year after the ruling bloc steamrollered the bill through the Diet, but the nature of the issue remains unchanged. The government must not intentionally hide information unfavorable for itself and cover the people’s eyes and ears.
The negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade talks, conducted behind closed doors, show us the dangers of confidentiality pacts. We urge the government to make ceaseless efforts to review the law in response to public concerns and conduct thorough disclosure of information.
Under the law, the heads of government ministries and agencies, such as ministers, can designate as specified state secrets information deemed to be sensitive in the areas of defense, diplomacy, counterespionage and counterterrorism. The initial designation period for a state secret is five years or less, but can be extended for up to 30 years and can be classified for a maximum of 60 years if approved by the Cabinet. Exceptional information, such as those involving cryptology and human intelligence sources, can remain sealed for more than 60 years. Civil servants or private entities contracting with public agencies which leak the secrets will face harsh penalties of a maximum of 10 years in prison.
The law contains a serious problem which threatens the very foundations of a democratic society. Ever since the bill was submitted to the Diet, we have raised concerns over issues such as the extent and validity of designating information as secrets, the absence of strict monitoring by an independent watchdog and the risk of civil servants feeling constrained by the excessively tough penalties. Simply put, we would not be able to know which information was classified as secrets, and once secret documents are disposed of, we would not be able even to examine past incidents.
In October, the Cabinet approved the guidelines for implementing the law, which set rules for identifying information as state secrets in 55 categories under four sectors. The government says an oversight mechanism by experts and the Diet will be assured, in addition to the establishment of a monitoring body in the Cabinet Office, aimed at preventing arbitrary applications of the law. The guidelines also stipulate that the government greatly respects the people’s right to know and takes into account freedom of reporting and news gathering.
However, the guidelines can be broadly interpreted and concerns remain over attempts to use the law to intentionally hide information. We also question whether the monitoring body has strong enough authority to work effectively. The Japan Newspaper Publishers and Editors Association, in which we are also a member, submitted a written statement to Justice Minister Yoko Kamikawa on Monday, Dec. 8, saying that it “is hard to say that the government has fully dispelled” such concerns and calling on the government to properly administer the law. If reporters’ inquiries to government agencies are regarded as encouraging leaks of state secrets, they could be accused of violating the law. Bureaucrats will become excessively cautious about offering information and come under great pressure. We deeply worry that the society is deprived of the right of free expression and the right to know in such a way.
Isn’t there any possibility that what are negotiated under the TPP scheme will be designated as specified secrets for national security reasons? The talks are already treated as strictly confidential, but if the information concerning the talks is shielded behind the veil of state secrecy, our right to know will mean next to nothing. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said that basically, information related to TPP talks will not be subject to designation as state secrets. But it is those in power who decide what will be classified as secrets, and it is the gigantic ruling coalition which is controlling the Diet. The Diet has an important role to play, and it needs a ceaseless monitoring from the public. It is a big focus of campaigns for the coming election.
(Dec. 10, 2014)