Japan PM on defensive after party members call for press curbs

TOKYO - Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was on the defensive Friday after a party lawmaker reportedly suggested newspapers hostile to his hawkish military policy should be punished, calling on businesses to boycott advertising in them.

Abe reacted after opposition politicians rounded on him over the remarks -- the latest in a series of episodes that have suggested his party's hostility to traditional press freedoms.

"Freedom of the press is the base of democracy," Abe told parliament. "Paying respect to that notion is a matter of course."

Abe, a robust nationalist, has pushed bills to loosen restrictions that have bound the so-called Self-Defence Forces to a narrowly defensive role for decades.

Opposition lawmakers and liberal dailies have stepped up criticism after legal experts said the propsed legislation, which would allow Japan's military to fight in defence of allies, was unconstitutional.

On Thursday, at a meeting of nearly 40 lawmakers from Abe's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), participants called for restrictions on media that oppose the government's bills.

"If you want to punish the media, the best way is to cut their income from advertisement," an LDP lawmaker told the closed meeting, the Asahi Shimbun newspaper said, quoting participants.

The unnamed lawmaker and others also called on the nation's biggest business lobby, Keidanren, to help financially pressure media that were criticising the bills, the daily added.

Naoki Hyakuta, a controversial right-wing figure close to Abe, was invited to the meeting as a lecturer and reportedly said that two liberal dailies in Okinawa, which are opposed to plans to relocate US bases on the island, should be closed down.

Hyakuta, a former senior manager of the nation's public broadcaster NHK and a bestselling novelist, drew fire last year when he denied that the Nanjing massacre had ever taken place.

Mainstream historians agree that Japanese troops went on a rampage of rape and murder when they sacked China's then-capital of Nanjing in 1937.

Late last year the LDP also drew criticism after the party -- which, as a political party plays no regulatory role in broadcasting -- wrote to networks urging "fair" coverage ahead of a general election, in what was seen as an attempt to bring the media to heel.

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