Media coverage of victims questioned

Debate heating up on whether names can or should be publicized


SAITAMA (Kyodo) Kenichi Ino has held a grudge against the media since it defamed his daughter, Shiori, who was stalked and killed by her former boyfriend and his accomplices in Saitama Prefecture in 1999.

“My family and I suffered not only from the death of my daughter but from incorrect media reports that she was a brand-obsessed, imprudent girl,” Ino, 55, said, looking back on the days after the 21-year-old woman’s murder.

News organizations published inaccurate reports and carried her photos without the family’s approval, he said, adding that they completely ignored his complaints.

In response to the distress felt by crime victims and their families in such cases, the government endorsed a 258-point basic plan to support crime victims in late December. The plan includes leaving it up to the police to decide whether victims’ names should be disclosed.

This clause has drawn protests from media organizations, with the Japan Newspaper Publishers and Editors Association and the National Association of Commercial Broadcasters in Japan saying in a joint statement that anonymity would make gathering the news difficult.

Despite his criticism, Ino sides with the media on the information disclosure issue, noting that a weekly photo magazine and a broadcaster had uncovered the failure by police to investigate a complaint his daughter had filed against her stalkers.

“The media were the ones that harassed us, but the media also helped us cast aside the false image given to Shiori and uncover the police mishandling of her complaint,” he said.

“My family would not have been victimized by the media if police had not disclosed my daughter’s name to them, but the media would not have been able to allow us to accuse police of carrying out an improper investigation if they had not known her identity,” he said.

Ino and his wife filed a damages suit over the police failure to investigate Shiori’s complaint. The Saitama District and Tokyo High courts ruled that police did not sufficiently investigate the stalking case and betrayed their daughter’s trust and expectations, and ordered the Saitama Prefectural Government to pay the family 5.5 million yen in compensation.

The Inos have appealed the ruling to the Supreme Court, because the lower courts rejected their claim of a causal link between the failure of police to investigate their daughter’s complaint and her murder.

“I believe police should disclose everything in principle and it should be left to the media to decide whether to report victims’ names in each case on the assumption that they have sincere and mature reporters,” Ino said.

The government’s decision on disclosure of crime victims’ names, meanwhile, may lead the media to review their crime reporting.

Masanori Yamaguchi can’t forget his experience on night duty as a cub reporter at a local branch of the Yomiuri Shimbun, when a young woman came in and told him she had caused serious injury to someone in a traffic accident several days earlier.

“She wanted to see if the paper had reported the accident, as a job offer to her might have been canceled if it was made public. After checking the clippings, she was relieved to find no report, and I was relieved, too,” Yamaguchi, now a freelance journalist, recalled.

“I may have reported the accident if we had not had enough news to fill the space on that day, and I realized that my job sometimes affects people’s lives,” Yamaguchi, 56, said.

He said the media should introduce an anonymous reporting system under which they report the names of victimized people only when they so desire.

“While police need to disclose victims’ names so the authorities will not hide matters unfavorable to them, the media should decide whether to report the names under the the principle of anonymous reporting,” he said. “If a newsmaker is a public figure, the media may identify him or her on their own responsibility.”

The media have gone too far in the coverage of ordinary citizens in reporting major crimes and accidents, and as a result have lost public trust, Yamaguchi said, adding that instead of this, “they are expected to direct their spear at those with power.”

Citing the fatal derailment in Amagasaki, Hyogo Prefecture, in April, that claimed 107 lives, he said, “The survivors of the accident told me the media jumped to their tear-jerking stories, but they expected reporters to dig out why such an accident had occurred.

“The media need to review why they report crimes and accidents, and what readers and viewers should know” while attacking the government’s disclosure policy, he said.

The media are also being urged to reassess the press club system.

“Reporters rely too much on what police announce or leak. They cannot write anything without information from police,” Ino said. “When I protested over their false reports about my daughter, they defiantly declared, ‘It is what police said.’ “

But some argue it should not be the media that decide what information about victims should be disclosed.

“I do not trust the media, and it should be left to victims themselves, not the media, to decide whether they should be identified,” said Ino’s wife, Kyoko, 55, who is a member of the National Association of Crime Victims and Surviving Families.

“We have appealed to the government about our hardships, but its decision over the disclosure system for victims’ names is not in line with our demand,” she said.

Her husband does not belong to the group.

Eri Oba, an associate professor specializing in criminal sociology at Kanagawa University, said criticism by the media on the government’s policy will not be accepted unless it changes its style of reporting crimes.

“The current crime reports are just ‘reports on police investigations,’ based on anonymous police sources, but we know the whole picture of a crime will not be made clear until the end of the trial,” she said. “I believe crime reports need to include court procedures.”

Oba also said a change in reporting crimes is needed prior to the introduction of the citizen judge system by 2009.

“People tend to believe a crime is solved once police arrest a suspect, but such people may become citizen judges to sit in courts on major criminal trials. I expect the media to take the upcoming legal system reform into account when they comprehensively review their crime reporting.”