Issues remain over implementation of Japan's secrets law

Issues remain over implementation of Japan's secrets law
Members of Japan's House of Councillors seethe with a shoe thrown from the spectators gallery before a vote on a bill to create a law to protect specific state secrets at 10:53 p.m. Friday.

A law to protect specially designated state secrets aims to reinforce the system of safeguarding highly confidential information because Japan is expected to exchange more sensitive information with other nations with the establishment of a Japanese version of the US National Security Council.

The Japanese NSC is to serve as the headquarters for orchestrating the government's diplomatic and national security policies.

The government will establish the information security oversight office, a third-party body within the Cabinet Office, to check whether there are any problems in how the law is executed in actual practice.

Specially designated secrets are defined as pieces of information that could seriously compromise Japan's security if leaked and thus require special measures to keep them confidential. Cabinet members, such as the chief cabinet secretary, the foreign minister and the defence minister, and the National Police Agency commissioner general will be authorised to designate them as state secrets.

Specifically, information in four fields-defence, diplomacy, anti-espionage and antiterrorism measures-may be designated as state secrets. The law's appendix lists specific kinds of secrets such as "signals and graphic information collected in connection with defence" and "codes used for defence purposes."

Currently, the government has designated about 420,000 pieces of highly confidential information as secrets subject to special control. They were designated using the standards of each organisation, such as the Cabinet Secretariat, the Foreign Ministry, the Defence Ministry and the NPA.

About 90 per cent of them are images from Japanese and other countries' intelligence-gathering satellites. Most of the others are codes and designs of weapons, such as fighter planes.

"We'll narrow down various secrets which have already been designated [as secrets subject to special control]," Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said, indicating that the government would reduce the number of pieces of classified information from the current levels.

To prevent ministries and agencies from hiding information inconvenient to them from the public's eyes by designating them as state secrets, the government will listen to opinions from the panel of experts, tentatively called the "advisory council on information security" to establish a unified standard for designating state secrets, which will be made public.

The information security oversight office to be established within the Cabinet Office before the law takes effect will have about 20 members. In the future, the council is expected to be upgraded to a highly independent entity based on Article 3 of the National Government Organisation Law.

The office will likely have strong authority to check whether each ministry or agency is designating information as state secrets in a proper manner and issue recommendations to correct the decisions if necessary.

At a press conference Friday, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said: "Whether designations are proper or not will be judged [by the oversight office]. We will make [how we handle state secrets] visible to the public."

He indicated that officials of the oversight office would be authorised to examine state secrets themselves.

Also, the government will establish a surveillance committee to check designations in the Cabinet Secretariat comprising administrative vice ministers from ministries and agencies concerned. It will additionally establish the post of an independent inspector of public documents who will judge whether declassified public documents should be destroyed. The post is expected to be occupied by a councillor-level government official.

The prime minister tried to underscore that a robust checking system will be in place during a Diet session by saying, "We will make it a three-layered checking system."

The law will be promulgated within this month and will be enforced within a year after the announcement.

But many tasks remain over how to operate the law.

Before the law takes effect, the government has to compile a unified standard for classifying information and iron out details about organisations to be established, including the oversight office.

The law stipulates information-gathering activities by the press to guarantee the people's right to know are legitimate activities unless they are deemed "grossly improper." But what constitutes "proper information-gathering activities" remains ambiguous.

Media organisations are concerned that government employees may think twice before responding to reporters' inquiries, as public servants who leak sensitive information will be subject to tougher punishments.

Journalists wary

The Japan Newspaper Publishers & Editors Association on Friday said the law to protect specified state secrets could restrict the freedom of the press guaranteed by the Constitution, depending on how the government and administrative organisations apply the law in their operations. As a result, it could compromise the people's right to know, a fundamental principle in a democracy.

"We shall continue to strongly demand that the people's right to know and the freedom of information-gathering and the press will not be obstructed," the association said in a statement.

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