Japan state secrets bill on track to become law despite protests

Japan state secrets bill on track to become law despite protests
Masaharu Nakagawa (bottom, L), chairman of the Upper House Special Committee on National Security, is surrounded by lawmakers during a vote on a state secrets act at the parliament in Tokyo December 5, 2013.

TOKYO - A Japanese state secrets bill toughening penalties for leaks came a step closer to becoming law on Thursday when ruling parties forced it through a parliamentary panel amid protests it will muzzle the media and help cover up official misdeeds.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's drive to pass the law coincides with a worldwide debate on secrecy after former US National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden leaked documents on intelligence agencies' extensive collection of data about ordinary citizens and a US Army private leaked masses of sensitive documents to anti-secrecy group Wikileaks.

Abe says the law is vital to the smooth operation of a new National Securities Council that will strengthen the hand of the prime minister over foreign and security policy and persuade foreign countries such as close ally the United States to share key information.

Media, publishers, lawyers and even entertainers have denounced the bill, which drastically expands the definition of state secrets and for some has echoes of Japan's harsh authoritarian regime before and during World War Two.

"This is the way the reign of terror begins!" shouted opposition lawmaker Hirokazu Shiba when a member of Abe's ruling bloc broke off questioning and motioned for a vote by a panel in parliament's Upper House.

Opponents of the measure circled the committee chairman, with one leaning over his desk, waving a sheaf of papers directly in his face as he called for the vote.

Abe wants to pass the bill before parliament's session ends on Friday. The ruling parties were leaning towards a vote in the full Upper House - where they hold a solid majority - later on Thursday, media said. It has already passed the lower chamber.

Under the bill, public servants or others with access to state secrets could be jailed for up to 10 years for leaking them. 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.

"I think we have had exhaustive debate," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a news conference. "If we explain this carefully, the public's concerns should be resolved."

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