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Updated: Over Scientists' Objections, Japan Adopts State Secrets Law

6 December 2013 1:00 pm
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Concerned. Nobel laureates Toshihide Maskawa (left) and Hideki Shirakawa (right) are among a group of scientists opposing a new secrecy law in Japan.

Credit: Wikimedia (left)/Nobelprize.org (right)

Concerned. Nobel laureates Toshihide Maskawa (left) and Hideki Shirakawa (right) are among a group of scientists opposing a new secrecy law in Japan.

Japanese scientists and academics are warning that legislation threatening prison terms for those who divulge and publish what the government deems a state secret threatens academic freedom and the public’s right to know.

The bill has been rushed through Japan’s parliament so quickly that opponents have had little time to react. The lower house of the Diet passed the bill on 26 November, and the upper house approved the bill on 6 December.

That fast track gave scientists little time to voice their opposition. A hastily formed ad hoc group of about 30 scholars—including Nobel laureates Toshihide Maskawa, a physicist now at Nagoya University, and Hideki Shirakawa, a chemist and professor emeritus at the University of Tsukuba—issued a statement [in Japanese here] on 28 November saying the secrecy law "threatens the pacifist principles and fundamental human rights established by the constitution and should be rejected immediately." The statement further says, "Even in difficult times, protecting the freedom of the press, of thought and expression and of academic research is indispensable."

Maskawa and others held a press conference on 3 December to draw attention to the issue. Since then, more than 3000 academics have signed the group's statement, says Chiba University historian Hiroaki Ozawa, one of the organizers. On 2 December, The Japan Scientists' Association expressed similar concerns [Japanese pdf here] about the possible impact on scientific research.

Virtually all of Japan's mass media outlets, many nongovernmental organizations, legal organizations, and even some prefectural legislatures officially oppose the bill. Polls show that the general public doesn't like it, either. 

But the ruling coalition of the Liberal Democratic and New Komeito parties, led by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, has used its majority in both houses of the Diet to brush aside opposition. Using a parliamentary maneuver, a committee of the upper house cut off debate on the bill on 5 December. The upper house approved the bill the next day.

Under the new law, government employees who leak secret information could face up to 10 years in prison; journalists who solicit such information could get 5-year sentences. Opponents object to the vagueness of what constitutes state secrets and the absence of any third-party oversight on what government officials can designate a secret. The administration maintains that the law is intended to bolster national security, protect diplomatic efforts, and fight terrorism and espionage. Scientists are worried about a loss of academic freedom.

In an interview with the Asahi Shimbun newspaper on 27 November, Maskawa agreed that the country needs to be able to keep sensitive information secret. But he worries that the broadly written bill could be extended to prevent public and academic scrutiny of information related to controversial policy issues.

As one example, many scientists are pointing to what they view as the government’s tardy and incomplete disclosure of data from nuclear accidents. The most recent incident is the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster of 2011. Maskawa pointed to a 1999 accident that killed two workers at a nuclear fuel processing plant in Tokaimura. Academic researchers want better information so as to independently verify the threat to public safety. "Rather than make something secret, security is better achieved by letting everyone have a look at it," Maskawa told the newspaper. 

The scientists’ association will be looking at ways to limit the law's implementation and other measures “to protect freedom of the press and of academia,” says Mitsugu Yoneda, an economist at Chuo University who is head of the group’s secretariat. “These are constitutional rights.” Ozawa says that concerned academics hope to convince the next administration to repeal the law.

*Update, 8 December: This story was updated to reflect the upper house's action on the bill on 6 December.

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