Japan moves to enact strict secrets act despite press freedom fears

Japan moves to enact strict secrets act despite press freedom fears
Protesters gather in front of the parliament after the government proposed state secrecy act was passed in Tokyo

TOKYO - Japan on Tuesday moved closer towards a law that would expand the definition of state secrets and raise penalties for leaks, a provision critics say will block access to information on sensitive areas, including the nuclear industry.

Parliament's lower house approved the state secrets act after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's Liberal Democratic Party agreed last week to revisions with small, conservative opposition parties.

Opponents of the legislation say the changes were cosmetic and failed to address basic concerns on civil liberties and the public's right to know.

The bill now goes before parliament's upper house, where it is likely to pass without dfficulty.

The LDP and its junior partner have a solid majority in both chambers so winning some opposition backing was seen mainly as a way to ease public concerns about the bill.

According to opinion polls, more voters oppose the bill than back it. Nearly 63 per cent of respondents to a Kyodo news agency survey last weekend expressed concerned about its provisions.

Hundreds of protesters demonstrated against the legislation near parliament on Tuesday.

"Clearly, there will be a chilling effect on access to a wide range of information," said Meiji University law professor Lawrence Repeta.

"It is clearly aimed at news media to block reporting in a way that may be critical of the government on a wide range of sensitive issues," added Repeta. He, like others, noted the likely dampening impact on whistleblowers.

Under the law, public servants or others cleared for access to state secrets could be jailed up to 10 years for leaks.

Journalists and others in the private sector convicted of encouraging such leaks could get up to five years if they use "grossly inappropriate" means to solicit the information.

Top officials in all ministries will be able to designate special state secrets in four categories - defence, diplomacy, counter-terrorism and counter-espionage - that can be kept secret for up to 60 years and in some cases longer.

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