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Expert panel debates designation of Japan's state secrets amid ongoing opposition

An advisory panel comprised of university professors and lawyers convened Friday for their inaugural meeting at Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's office to discuss legal issues pertaining to the protection of designated state secrets.

The seven-member panel discussed operational criteria regarding the designation and disclosure of state secrets, following the passing of Japan's state secrecy law last month, according to government officials.

The council, chaired by Tsuneo Watanabe, chairman of the board and editor-in-chief of The Yomiuri Shimbun Holdings, heard from Abe that Japan needs to have unequivocal rules regarding the designation and disclosure of its state secrets.

"The handling of state secrets by the government has been obscure, so what we need to do is to ensure objectivity and transparency," the prime minister told the panel.

"We will dispel public concerns by applying the law in an appropriate manner," Abe added.

The new controversial law, which is opposed by more than 80 percent of Japanese citizens, many of whom believe the law will restrict the public's right to know and grant the government too much autonomy to designate and classify secrets, decrees that those leaking special state secrets could face harsh punishments, including 10-year prison terms, but the definition of a "state secret" still remains hazy, political observers here attest.

Watanabe, who oversees The Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan's largest daily newspaper in circulation, warned the government Friday against using the law in a manner that would inhibit the public's freedom of speech or the freedom of the press.

He said that the government must not act in an autocratic manner in its interpretation of what it decides should be state secrets and ensure the public's freedom of speech and press freedom be maintained.

Masako Mori, state minister in charge of the secrecy law, has attempted to reassure media organization and journalists that regular news gathering activities would not be punished, stating that the law will take into consideration the freedom of the press.

However concerns remain rife in opposition parties about the ruling Liberal Democratic Party of Japan-led (LDP) coalition's strong-arming of the bill through both houses of parliament, including its eleventh-hour enactment into law by the upper house in December.

Both opposition parties and the public have voiced concern that the new secrecy law will take away the public's right to know, while dishing out harsh penalties on those deemed to have leaked or initiated leaks of state secrets.

Abe has conceded that he himself had failed to communicate these ideas effectively, but said that Japan is lagging behind other nations on matters of state secrecy laws, in terms of their control and declassification.

Political commentators here attest that the setting up of the advisory council was Abe's attempt to quell concerns from the public and the opposition bloc, and present the state secrecy law and its surrounding legal criteria in a more egalitarian fashion, following a nationwide backlash.

Thousands of demonstrators have petitioned the bill and formed human chains around the Diet building in December as the controversial bill was being steamrolled through parliament.

The demonstrators, including journalists, professors, actors and directors, as well as celebrities and regular citizens, reflected the nation's concerns that their right to know will be diminished under the new law.

From a broader perspective, Abe and the ruling LDP have also unveiled plans for five and ten year national defense and diplomacy strategies, under the jurisdiction of the rapidly-formed U.S-style National Security Council (NSC), which seeks to boost military spending on next-generation hardware and personnel, under the legal jurisdiction of the controversial secrecy law being discussed Friday.

Under the new defense guidelines, some 240 billion U.S. dollars will be pumped into bolstering Japan's military capabilities against what Abe and his administration have described as a " perceived threat."

With regard to the formation of the NSC and the contentious secrets law, which will take effect within a year of its Dec. 13 promulgation, dissatisfaction in the opposition camp is growing as Abe rolls out more policies that the opposition bloc feel have not been debated thoroughly in parliament and have caused ever- increasing public unease.

The ruling camp's right-leaning and autocratic policy moves have triggered defections from smaller opposition parties due to ideological differences regarding the moves, and a number of notable former opposition party members are eyeing a realignment of the opposition bloc to better stand against an overly dominant LDP in parliament.

[Source: Xinhua, Tokyo, 17Jan14]

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