Donald Trump’s “fake news” mantra is making life too easy for Asian leaders grappling with intense voter backlashes. It’s hardly a coincidence that the two leaders working hardest to work the media are the US president’s favorite golf buddies.
Take Malaysia’s Najib Razak, who’s taking a big swing at rival Mahathir Mohamad ahead of next week’s general election. The government of Prime Minister Najib, no stranger to manipulating the media, is investigating former Prime Minister Mahathir, 92, under a controversial anti-fake news law.
But the most damaging anti-media campaign may be unfolding in far more developed Japan. Feeling the heat, scandal-plagued Prime Minister Shinzo Abe recently raised the specter of altering the decades-old Broadcast Act. Media watchdogs fear a crackdown on television and internet news outlets.
It’s quite a coincidence that such talk is making the rounds as Abe’s support ratings fall into the 30s, and, at times, the 20s. The chilling threat also comes as Japan turned in another embarrassing performance in the annual media-freedom rankings from Reporters Without Borders.
When Abe grabbed the reins in 2012, Japan ranked 22nd. Today, the Group of Seven nation is 67th, trailing El Salvador, Malta and Malawi. It’s barely three rungs above Hong Kong, on which China’s great wall of media censorship is increasingly encroaching.
Tokyo served up its own bit of fake news concerning the results, highlighting the fact that it improved from 72nd place in 2017. That, however, was only because other key developed nations lost ground. Not least of which was Trump’s America, ranking a shameful 40th, behind Trinidad and Tobago, Chile and Lithuania.
But Japan’s slide has been precipitous under Abe, a trend that does more to mar his economic revival program than meets the eye. Two steps taken since 2012 amount to a great leap backward for Japanese press freedom: a government secrets bill and national-security legislation. Taken together, the steps laid out vague restrictions on whistleblowing, including possible jail time for journalists. That has led local media to engage in a disturbing level of self-censorship.
Even so, disclosures about Abe’s latest cronyism scandal have him threatening to tighten the noose further. It involves the sale of public land at an 86% discount to a school company with ties to Abe’s wife. Local media outlets also uncovered evidence that Ministry of Finance officials doctored paperwork related to the transaction, putting Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso in hot water, too.
On Friday, the Japan Times detailed Abe’s Trumpian effort to “gut laws” to curtail critical coverage of his government. “What’s happening is Abe’s revenge against the mass media,” Iwao Osaka, a journalism professor at Tokyo’s Komazawa University, told the newspaper.
Social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter are awash in fake news. But when leaders use the term in the Trump era, it’s about anger that the press is holding power accountable. What’s less appreciated, is how a more aggressive press would help Abenomics shift into a higher gear.
At its core, Abenomics is a ploy to add epic waves of liquidity to markets to boost corporate profits. The hope is that Japan Inc shares trillions of dollars of spoils with workers in the form of higher wages. But things haven’t gone as planned. Real wages fell 0.2% in 2017 and are lagging again this year.
One problem: executives are waiting for Abe to implement bold reforms to loosen labor markets, cut bureaucracy, support startups and narrow the gender-pay gap. Another: Japan Inc answers to no one. Abe’s efforts to tighten corporate governance have been overshadowed by quality-control scandals at Kobe Steel, Mitsubishi Materials, Nissan and other names.
Here, the media should be Abe’s ally. A livelier press could police underperforming and corrupt government officials and wayward corporate executives. Instead, Abe is trumping a media establishment that should be helping Japan raise its economic game.