Burying Japan’s Nuclear Secrets

The Asahi Shimbun demanded we delete part of this series

2020.09.08 19:26 Makoto Watanabe

11 min read

The Asahi Shimbun’s Public Affairs Division contacted me on Nov. 28, 2019, to demand that Tansa immediately delete part of this series.

Of course, we have no intention of curbing our reporting on this topic. Tansa refuses to comply with The Asahi Shimbun’s demand — a demand that only serves to undermine the Asahi’s own journalism.

Content of the Asahi’s deletion demand

Tansa has been asked to delete two sections of this series, “Burying Japan’s Nuclear Secrets.”

The first is from the sixth article, “Follow-up article would have examined the lessons of Fukushima,” published in Japanese on Nov. 11, 2019.

Tansa obtained and reported on the Asahi’s unpublished follow-up to its article about Fukushima No. 1 plant manager Masao Yoshida’s account of the nuclear disaster. Six days before the original article was retracted on Sept. 11, 2014, the Asahi still planned to fulfill its responsibility to readers with a follow-up that expanded on and clarified the original.

The unpublished follow-up article included an explanation from the head of the investigative section, as well as quotes from Fukushima No. 1 workers present at the time of the accident.

But the Asahi told Tansa to delete the portion of our article detailing the content of the unpublished follow-up.

Its reasons are as follows.

“1. Following internal discussion, the Asahi determined that the follow-up article was not appropriate as an explanation to readers and decided not to publish it.

“2. Leaking unpublished articles and quotes from interviews represents a serious violation of professional ethics as a journalist.

“3. The above action is also a violation of the Asahi’s employment regulations and reporter code of conduct. It is extremely regrettable that you, Makoto Watanabe, would publish with [Tansa] the content of an article written while you were still a member of the Asahi’s special investigative section.”

The second deletion demand was about our series’ seventh article, “Enter the crisis manager,” published in Japanese on Nov. 12, 2019. In the article, Tansa reported on the content of a company brochure that the Asahi had planned to use in fiscal year 2015.

The scrapped brochure contained a section about the two reporters who had worked on the Fukushima article, including their photos. A draft was sent to both of them on Aug. 28, 2014, two weeks before the Asahi retracted their article. It is proof of how the two reporters were recast from heroes of the paper to offenders in the blink of an eye.

But the Asahi made the following claim about our reporting on the brochure and demanded it be deleted as well.

“[Tansa] has published without permission part of an internal draft of the Asahi’s company brochure. We demand it be deleted from your website.”

Retraction based on an impression

Here’s why Tansa reported on the content of the Asahi’s unpublished follow-up article.

The Asahi’s stated reason for retracting its article on Yoshida’s testimony was that “by using the expression ‘workers evacuated, in violation of manager orders,’ the article gave readers the impression that TEPCO employees [the plant workers] had fled.”

But how did the Asahi analyze its readers’ impressions? The paper is not clear on this point.

Still, this much I can say: If a newspaper gives its readers a mistaken impression, it has a responsibility to offer an explanation in print.

And, in fact, the Asahi tried to do just that.

It tried to publish a follow-up article four times, the last of which was scheduled to run just six days before the original was retracted. Tansa explained as much in this series’ fifth article, “Awards over responsibility to readers.”

We published a summary of and excerpt from that follow-up, which is what the Asahi has now demanded we delete. But readers deserve to know what it said.

Sei’ichi Ichikawa, then head of the Asahi’s special investigative section, wrote the following in his explanation to readers about the intent of the original article on Yoshida’s account of the disaster.

“The article aimed to take a hard look at the very real possibility that, in the event of a serious nuclear accident, a large number of the plant’s workers may leave the site, even though their presence is essential to respond to the crisis. The article raised the question of whether a fundamental reworking of the organizations and systems [to respond to a severe accident] is necessary.”

This was something the Japanese public, having experienced a nuclear disaster, deserved to know. Tansa has received extensive feedback from readers that this coverage “clearly conveys the lessons of the Fukushima disaster.”

The Asahi’s unpublished follow-up article also included quotes from Fukushima No. 1 workers, who said that “the plant manager’s order to stay on site hadn’t reached them.”

This point is key to understanding why the Asahi retracted the article.

If “giving readers the impression that TEPCO employees fled” had been the real reason for the retraction, the better remedy would have been to publish the follow-up article that told their side of the story.

However, the Asahi chose not to do so. But why?

To my eyes, the Asahi had another reason for retracting the Fukushima article. The paper had been catching heat for pulling a column by journalist Akira Ikegami. I believe it retracted the article in order to deflect criticism from that incident. In other words, the paper used its story on the nuclear disaster as a scapegoat.

For details, please read this series’ third and fourth articles, “‘Pulling Ikegami’s column was the biggest problem’” and “The lie at the press conference.”

Setting a dangerous precedent

In its demand, the Asahi’s Public Affairs Division referred to Tansa’s release of unpublished material as a leak. It declared such action to be “a serious violation of professional ethics as a journalist” and “a violation of the Asahi’s employment regulations and reporter code of conduct.”

However, the Asahi is the subject of Tansa’s investigation and reporting. If we believe that certain information is in the public interest, we will disclose it.

I am not part of the Asahi. But even if I was, I would not hesitate to use another media outlet to share this information if my ethics as a journalist took precedence over my ethics as an employee.

Has the Asahi itself never disclosed internal information? Of course it has.

The numerous scoops lauded by the Asahi as the achievements of its investigative reporting exposed hidden, internal information. Do you call those “leaks” too?

“Leak” is a word used by those for whom it would have been much more convenient to keep the truth hidden.

The Asahi Public Affairs Division’s reason for demanding that Tansa delete the part of our article about the scrapped company brochure was that we “didn’t ask permission” to report on it.

Would the Asahi withhold information because it didn’t receive permission from the subject of its reporting? Of course not.

For example, the Asahi used documents from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s local office to link said office with cherry blossom viewing parties allegedly used to reward political supporters. Did the Asahi ask Abe’s permission before publishing its story?

Censuring Tansa sets a dangerous precedent. If a whistleblower risked their career to approach the Asahi with information, would the paper maintain the same stance? Whistleblowers are essential for investigative journalism. If they worry that the Asahi will see them as leakers betraying their own organization, they will not come forward.

Of course, that wouldn’t matter if the Asahi would rather abandon investigative journalism and become a mouthpiece for Japan’s government and corporations.

Reactions from journalists

After they heard about the Asahi’s deletion demand, I was contacted by a number of the Asahi’s own reporters who were frustrated by the stance their paper had taken against Tansa.

“What kind of newspaper is the Asahi if it does this sort of thing? Look how far it’s fallen.”

“This is nonsensical behavior from the Asahi.”

“I don’t really feel like I can speak out within the paper. Please say what I can’t.”

I also asked for the opinions of three veteran journalists on this matter. Their messages did not contain amusement at Tansa and the Asahi’s sparring, but rather a deep concern that the Asahi was losing sight of its journalistic mission.

Martin Fackler, former New York Times Tokyo bureau chief: “Attempting to silence journalists also hurts the Asahi”

More than any other Japanese media, The Asahi Shimbun should understand the importance of journalists supporting other journalists. In summer 2014, when the Asahi was facing the Abe administration and its allies, it became the target of criticism by other media. This weakened the Asahi — and ended up hurting public trust in all media in the process.

It is ironic, and disappointing, that the Asahi is now attacking other journalists, especially a small NGO trying to do real investigative journalism.

Of course, the Asahi has the right to disagree with Tansa. But it is responding in the wrong way.

The Asahi should not try to silence other journalists. This would limit information, which hides the truth, weakens civil society, and denies the people of Japan the chance to know their own history.

If the Asahi doesn’t agree with Tansa, the paper should respond in a different way: by telling the public its version of events after Fukushima. Disclose to us how the Asahi handled the second-worst nuclear disaster in history. Tell us more about what happened. Give us more information, not less.

Silencing fellow journalists is a terrible mistake that hurts all journalists, including the Asahi itself. The Asahi should know that.

Atsushi Yamada, Democracy Times representative and former Asahi Shimbun senior staff writer: This shameful act makes it harder for your reporters to do their job

It is in the public interest to investigate why the article on Yoshida’s testimony was retracted. At the time, in 2014, the Asahi’s management retracted the article and denounced the reporters involved, as well as allowed President Tadakaza Kimura to escape blame for interfering in editorial when he pulled Akira Ikegami’s column criticizing the Asahi. These were clearly errors in judgement by the paper’s management.

But the Asahi is a company, and sometimes mistakes happen. Sometimes people forget to think critically. Unfortunately, this is what happened in the events surrounding the Yoshida article’s retraction.

With the passage of time, we should be able to take another look at the paper’s mistakes. Reviewing management’s errors in judgement is an opportunity for the Asahi to correct its own vulnerabilities. Isn’t it the paper’s duty to examine and learn from its mistakes?

And yet, the Asahi is using “employee regulations” to cry foul and demand that Tansa delete part of its series. This is a strange logic. Tansa’s series illuminates the mistakes of journalists. It is clearly in the public interest.

The Asahi needs to understand that demanding the removal of articles containing inconvenient, leaked information fundamentally harms journalism’s place in civil society. This demand is tantamount to the Asahi declaring that it will not report on internal information and documents. Think how much that would impact the paper’s own reporters’ work. The Asahi should recognize this shameful act for what it is.

I really regret that it’s come to this. And I pity your reporters trying to give journalism their all.

Tetsuji Shibata, former Asahi Shimbun senior staff writer and city news section editor: The Asahi should retract its retraction

I joined the Asahi 60 years ago and have been retired for 25. Since this matter relates to the nuclear accident, I will mention that I served as editor of the science and city news sections and as a senior staff writer. At the request of Tansa, I am contributing my views.

In September 2014, then President Tadakazu Kimura held a press conference to announce that the Asahi was retracting its article on Fukushima No. 1 plant manager Masao Yoshida’s account of the nuclear accident. At an Asahi shareholders meeting, I insisted that the decision was a mistake and urged current Asahi President Masataka Watanabe to “retract the retraction.”

As I see it, the article on Yoshida’s testimony, published on the front page of the Asahi’s May 20, 2014 edition, is not erroneous — it is a first-rate scoop. Right up until it was retracted, the Asahi thought so too, to the extent that the paper submitted it for the Japan Newspaper Publishers & Editors Association award.

But to suddenly retract it? Retraction is the fate of fabrications; not even articles containing honest mistakes receive that treatment. By retracting the Yoshida article, the Asahi placed it in the same category as fabrications like its 1950 “interview” with fugitive communist Ritsu Ito and 1989 article about a defaced coral reef.

Why was the article retracted? We can’t pretend it was unconnected to the Asahi’s August 2014 article announcing the results of its inspection into its past comfort women coverage. Even though 20 years had passed, the Asahi still had a duty to apologize to its readers for publishing false information. And yet it did not do so, and rejected Akira Ikegami’s draft calling for an apology. The combination of those two missteps exposed the Asahi to severe criticism, and the paper’s response — to retract the Fukushima article — was its third and greatest mistake.

If the Asahi felt that the headline of its article on Yoshida’s testimony had been a little too harsh, it could have made amends in a follow-up. Instead, it treated the article as misinformation and even punished the reporters responsible — to the extent that they subsequently left the paper. For these reasons, I insist that the Asahi reverse its retraction. I hope the paper will listen to reason.

Final answer

“Burying Japan’s Nuclear Secrets” will remain unchanged.

Because we have a responsibility to all those who are uneasy as Japan’s nuclear plants come back online one by one, a responsibility to examine the role of the media following the Fukushima disaster — and to investigate the disaster itself.

(Compiled from articles originally published in Japanese on Dec. 19 and 27, 2019)

Burying Japan’s Nuclear Secrets: All articles