The New York Times' Norimitsu Onishi has an article in the IHT on the close relationship between Japan's authorities and Japan's nominally independent press. Although the Asia Letter speaks of a country far removed (geographically speaking) from France — and Europe — the article nevertheless provides insight into how a society functions — and malfunctions — when the press is (too) closely linked to a country's authorities.
Although in the case of Japan, it turns out that — unlike France and Germany, say — the close relationship happens to be beneficial to the alliance with Washington, it nevertheless shows the deeper setbacks to freedom in a democracy… The alleged benefits thereof to Uncle Sam, I feel, are far outweighed by the setbacks provided by non-allied countries' leaders, citizens, and media outlets (from "Old Europe" to the Arab world) trained to run amock every time the subject of "perfidious America" is brought up…
There may be differences between Japan's press clubs and Europe's media outlets, but in the long run I find them to be subtle while I find the similarities akin to what happens when the press pounces on things like Abu Ghraib while ignoring beheadings of American citizens and their allies, not to mention the wilfull ignorance of Saddam Hussein's killing fields (all cases of emphasis below are mine), both in the past and in the present.
(This, in turn, is far from dissimilar to the fact that the "wailing industry" [as The Economist calls Japan's incessant commemorating of the Hiroshima bombing] seldom, if ever, reports on the atrocities committed by the imperial army during the Pacific War, notably at Nanjing.)
In May, an immigrant from Bangladesh, Mohamed Himu Islam, was arrested, along with four other Muslim foreigners living [in Tokyo], for allegedly having ties to Al Qaeda.Incidentally, Norimitsu Onishi has already reported on Japan's press clubs in the past.
Most of the charges amounted to nothing more than illegally staying in Japan, and none of the men … came from countries famous for being factory mills for Al Qaeda membership.
Still, maybe the police knew something more, because they were clearly playing the arrests up to the Japanese media.
Accordingly, the arrests flew onto the front pages of all national newspapers and made the top news on television.
Magazines placed photos of some of the men next to those of Osama bin Laden. Al Qaeda was here, or so it seemed.
Less than three months later, no one has been indicted on any Al Qaeda-related charge. Four of the men, sentenced for being in Japan without proper papers, appear to be facing deportation.
Meanwhile, Islam, also cleared of being a terrorist, is back living in his home in suburban Tokyo with his Japanese wife and their two children. With "Al Qaeda" stamped on his forehead, he is finding it impossible to rebuild his business and admits that he has even come close to committing suicide.
"I'm not Al Qaeda," Islam said. "I want to clear my name."
So far he has been unable to do so for the simple reason that the mainstream media here have almost completely ignored what happened after those arrests in May.
In the West, the media would have pounced on a similar story, especially one that the police had so hyped, with sober broadsheets dissecting the failures of the investigation and tabloids cutting to the chase with words like "botch-up" or "fiasco."
Here, there has been almost complete silence — so much so that average Japanese, while recalling the big headlines in May, are unaware that the arrested men, in fact, had nothing to do with Al Qaeda.
In a true sense, Islam found himself the victim of the collusion that exists in Japan between the authorities and the mainstream media.
A structure designed to protect the powerful while ignoring the powerless, it has allowed those who led this investigation to remain unaccountable while it nearly pushed Islam to jump off a bridge, and end what until recently had been a very happy life in Japan.
…At a mosque where he prayed and also looked for prepaid [telephone] card customers, Islam met the man who would lead him to his present predicament: Lionel Dumont, or Samir, as he was known in the Muslim community in Japan.
Dumont, a French citizen of Algerian descent, had been convicted of attacks and robberies as part of an Islamic militant gang in France and had been sentenced, in absentia, to life in prison.
Dumont, with suspected ties to Al Qaeda, had been living in Japan for several years, until at least September 2003.
As Samir, he became an on-and-off buyer of prepaid cards, just one in Islam's growing list of clients. Islam said he had not thought of him at all until last May when the man appeared suddenly on Japanese television.
Dumont, who had been arrested in Germany last December, was extradited to France in May. It was then revealed that he had been living for several years in Japan.
The revelation embarrassed the Japanese government, which had committed itself 100 percent to President George W. Bush's war on terror. It was particularly humiliating for the police authorities, who had set up antiterrorism task forces after the Sept. 11 attacks.
In the blinding media spotlight following the arrests, Islam was portrayed as the ringleader. The daily Yomiuri newspaper wrote, "behind the face of a businessman, did he also have another face as a supporter of terrorism?"
It also speculated that Islam had sent money to his country to support Islamic radicals.
In none of the newspapers was any police official quoted by name as making the accusations. All the information was clearly handed out in cozy press clubs, where the rules are mostly no name, no attribution — and no accountability.
After 43 days in jail, Islam was finally freed. His only sentence was to pay a $3,000 fine for employing two illegal foreign residents at his business … But because his release and the lack of Al Qaeda-related convictions in the other four cases were all but ignored here, Islam was still branded as an Al Qaeda member.
He could not rebuild his business, which had collapsed during his imprisonment. …Eventually, through the help of a Bangladeshi journalist here, Islam held a news conference at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan to clear his name. …
The newspapers ran tiny articles on Islam's news conference, burying them in the back pages.
He was particularly angry at one television network that ignored his conference but ran a segment on a monkey that, after suffering from an accident, had begun walking upright just like a human being.
"That monkey had the right to be on TV, but not me," Islam said. "I don't think I'm considered human here, because if I were human, I'd have human rights." …
With regards to Abu Ghraib and Iraq, Davids Medienkritik recently gave a specific example of the biased reporting in the German media, a type of "abuse" that the latter has "developed into an art form". David follows that by an example of what the European media would never report on (unless it were to bury them in the back pages, of course)…
And concerning "All the information was clearly handed out [by the authorities] in cozy press clubs", do you remember this?…