Japan “opens up” to freelancers

April 8, 2010

Hatoyama at a news conferenceJapan, breaking with tradition, has started to open up government news conferences to reporters outside the country’s established media. But have they become genuinely “open”?

After six months on the job, Prime Minister  Yukio Hatoyama  held his first news conference last month accessible to magazine, freelance and online journalists, drawing a packed crowd at the premier’s Kantei office . Other ministers, including those for foreign affairs, banking and environment, have also started news conferences for journalists excluded from so-called “press clubs”, which are reserved for a small number of mainstream news agencies, newspapers and broadcasters. The elite press clubs have long enjoyed exclusive access to government news conferences, off-the-record briefings and other events. Opening up the news conferences to non-club members has been a big deal, and only came about after Hatoyama’s Democratic Party took power last year with promises for change and more transparent policies.

But for all the hype over equal access and “openness”, freelance and magazine reporters were corralled to one side of the room for the prime minister’s recent news conference, while press  club members took front row seats. Some joked they were being treated like “dangerous people”. At the environment minister’s first “open” news conference, reporters were instructed:  “As professional journalists, please ask dignified questions”. (No plea for dignity at news conferences for press club members.) Reporters were also warned not to spend too much time venting their own opinions.

The press club system will probably continue for now, despite the recent changes and criticism that the clubs have led to reporters getting too cosy with government officials and too cosy amongst themselves.  Many ministers still limit access to press club members and even those who’ve opened up their news conferences hold separate ones exclusively for press clubs. Hatoyama has said that he would talk to his cabinet on the need for more transparency. For Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada , the change has helped not only freelancers but himself.  “I’ve learned things from the many different views presented here and I’m enjoying these news conferences,” he said last month.

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