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Japanese Election Law Strictly Followed During Campaign

February 15, 1990

TOKYO (AP) _ The TV news cameras pan the scene: the crowd is there, the bunting is there, everything that goes into a traditional campaign rally is clearly visible, except the candidate.

All that can be seen of him is a white-gloved hand clutching a microphone.

This seemingly bizarre campaign coverage is part of the Japanese media’s formula for fairness in accordance with the Public Officials Election Law.

With 953 candidates vying for seats in the lower house of Parliament in an election Sunday, ″we can’t show everybody in the news,″ said Takehiko Motohashi, spokesman for the prestigious public television network NHK.

The election law admonishes journalists not to contribute unfairly to the election or defeat of any candidate, and it provides for prosecution of anyone who publishes a false story about a candidate.

For general coverage of rallies and other staged events, NHK sometimes does not show the candidate’s face, adhering to an all-or-none policy in covering candidates in any constituency. Similarly, newspapers often make vague references to ″a conservative incumbent″ and print photos showing the backs of would-be parliamentarians.

The Japan Newspaper Publishers and Editors Association insists there are no legal restrictions on campaign reporting, but several reporters spoke of a tacit understanding.

Masato Kawahira, chief of the domestic news section of The Japan Times, a leading English-language daily, said: ″When the official campaign begins, we do not generally identify any of the candidates except the party leaders or former prime ministers.″

When the paper does name a candidate, it makes a point of naming all the others in the constituency, ″in line with the election law,″ he said.

A newspaper journalist, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that if only major candidates in a certain district were identified, fringe candidates would complain. So, although courts have ruled that news organs have the right to exclude fringe candidates from their coverage, he said it is sometimes preferable to use no names at all.

Last week, former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, who is seeking re- election, filed a complaint with prosecutors against Tadao Uchida, host of a morning talk show on TV Asahi. Nakasone, citing the election law, charged that Uchida made false statements about his campaign.

TV Asahi declined to comment, but following Nakasone’s complaint, Takeshi Maezawa, ombudsman for the Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan’s largest daily, said that unless a candidate has been arrested, the news media ″must be very sensitive″ in publishing stories about the politician.

Party leaders figure prominently in both TV and newspaper campaign coverage, and Cabinet members and other government officials continue to appear in the news. This gives an advantage to major incumbents, who can generate news at will.

Unlike the United States, where advertising holds center stage and is the biggest cost in political campaigns, Japan strictly limits candidates’ access to the mass media. Only political commercials sponsored by an entire party are permitted on TV and radio. Political newspaper ads are restricted to space the size of a playing card.

But even the humblest candidate gets to make at least one TV appearance. By law, 5 1/2 minutes are allotted free to each candidate on the airwaves of the public broadcasting system during the official two-week campaign period.

Every speech is delivered from the same blue podium in front of the same gray backdrop. Many of the office-seekers, unfamiliar with the medium, deliver their talks in a monotone. One candidate from a fringe party lapsed into silent prayer, presumably for votes.

If candidates are not satisfied with their access to the media, Yomiuri’s Maezawa notes, ″the law permits them to shout their names in the street as much as they like.″

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