November 21, 2017

Politics and the Press

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Fútbol para Todos in Japan

A Nobel winner once likened Argentina and Japan for their economic exceptionality, being for the good or the bad: there’s the developed, the underdeveloped and then there’s Japan and Argentina. What if there was a new link, more novel and modern, between the two?

All of a sudden one reads on the international press that the government of Japan is seeking to mingle with that country’s largest media organization, the State-run NHK Japan Broadcasting Corporation. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has, according to news reports, appointed some of his buddies to the NHK board and is reportedly hoping to make it lean toward more nationalistic stances his government promotes, especially when it comes to a territorial conflict with China that the neighbours had been timidly but steadfastly escalating over the last few months.

“We cannot say left when the government says right,” said Katsuto Momii, the new president of the broadcaster, in a recent press conference. He later apologized for the “misunderstanding.” But the damage had already been done.

NHK is technically independent from the government and collects its budget from fees paid by every citizen who has a television set at home, a model of financing State (public) broadcasting alike Britain’s BBC. Parliament appoints its 12-member governing body and also approves its budget. It is not - and has never been, as other such networks - free from political pressure.

China and Japan are Asia’s largest economies (second and third in the world respectively) and their economies are deeply intertwined. Still, they have been playing military hide and seek for months over a handful of disputed islands. Nationalism fuelled from the top almost always hides some domestic economic rationale behind it: China is committing to a new round of economic reforms and seeing decades of double-digit growth slow down; Japan is introducing some Keynesian policy to expand its economy.

While China’s press, under the tight grip of the Communist party, cannot be suspected of being anywhere near free, Japan has a different reputation to live up to. Yet reputation might not have been in the mind of another NHK governor, Naoki Hyakuta, who said this week that the Nanking Massacre, one of the most emblematic events of the second Sino-Japanese war in 1937, had never existed and that there was ‘no need to teach such things to Japanese children.‘ The Chinese and South Korean media covered the comments extensively. NHK chairman Momii also contributed to this row by saying that the use of sex slaves (euphemistically known as ‘comfort women‘) by the Japanese armies in South Korean during World War II was standard practice for all military forces at the time. He also took that back later on.

The underlying debate in Japan haunts State-run journalistic outlets the world over: does it best serves the interests of the country by delivering fair and balance reporting to citizens of by defending the interests of the government in charge - especially in case that government was elected democratically? The answer may be obvious at first sight, but the question continues to come up, even in places as ‘civilized‘ asà Australia.

The Prime Minister there, Toby Abbot, has collided heads-on with the State-run Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), which he accused of being anti-patriotic for taking ‘anyone’s side but Australia’s,‘ and urged to show ’’at least some basic affection for the home team.’’

The rift was caused by stories aired by ABC originating from Edward Snowden-filtered documents saying Australia had spied on the President of Indonesia and that the Australian Navy has mistreated asylum seekers. “Why should the ABC be acting as an advertising agent for a left-wing British newspaper (The Guardian)?” Abbot said. He then confirmed the government was weighing options of what to do with the broadcaster come the next budget, raising fears it could be trimmed down dramatically.


The condition of possibility for this kind of tension between government and broadcaster is an effective separation between the two. That has never been the case in Argentina. Although the 2009 Broadcasting Law passed by Congress in 2009 made some progress, it still leaves State communications policy too concentrated in the government’s political control.

The Fútbol para Todos football broadcast, which since 2009 is paid for by the federal government so that every Argentine can watch the games for free at home, is a good example of that. The Cristina Fernández de Kirchner administration is coughing up over a billion pesos a year to the AFA Football Association, the clubs and the TV producers but the money has mostly gone unchecked. The reasons why citizens cannot know the wages of football commentators whose wage are paid by taxpayers escapes the logic of democratic accountability. Access to information will be a pending issue landing on the next government.

The government’s decision backtrack on the last minute on a move to get star television host Marcelo Tinelli to contribute to the football show’s management may carry political consequences for an administration on the weak side of its popularity curve. Tinelli is expected back on the primetime this year, after a sabbatical. He’s shown in the past he can generate some extra public opinion damage if he gets cross.

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