Reporters Without Borders said Tuesday it deplores nuclear industry entrepreneur Shiro Shirakawa’s use of the courts to hound freelance journalist Minoru Tanaka for his article investigating collusion between Shirakawa, politicians, nuclear plant construction companies and TEPCO, the company that owns the ill-fated Fukushima-Daiichi plant.
Shirakawa, who now heads the nuclear power safety company New Tech, is demanding 67 million yen (670,000 euros) from Tanaka for calling him a “nuclear (industry) fixer” in an article he wrote for the weekly Shukan Kinyobi last December.
The sum includes libel damages, legal fees and the cost of publishing a correction in all the major newspapers. The case was heard by a Tokyo district court yesterday after an initial hearing in May. The next hearing is scheduled for August 7.
“It is not our job to decide whether Tanaka defamed Shirakawa, but we are dismayed by the journalist’s current legal plight,” Reporters Without Borders said. “The disproportionate amount of damages being demanded and the obviously unequal financial strength of the two parties involved in this legal battle require an appropriate response from the court.
“If Shirakawa wanted to rebut Tanaka’s allegations, all he had to do was insist on his right to have his response published by Shukan Kinyobi. What we are witnessing now can only be described as a reprisal against this journalist and an act designed to deter all other journalists from reporting anything along the same lines.
“We urge the court to throw this case out at once. Even if the court ends up ruling in Tanaka’s favour, the threat of bankruptcy will have taken a major toll on him. Any prolongation of this case will just increase its impact on journalists in terms of self-censorship. They already think twice before covering anything to do with Fukushima or trying to break through the lack of transparency surrounding TEPCO and the nuclear power industry in general.”
Tanaka’s description of Shirakawa’s alleged role as an intermediary between TEPCO, nuclear power plant construction companies, leading politicians such as Shizuka Kamei and even representatives of undergrounds organisations was based on public information (press articles, research documents from civic groups, etc).
The reporter also revealed that money had “channelled through” his nuclear power safety company, and studied the links between Shiro Shirakawa and certain key executives of nuclear industry, TEPCO former president, Hiroshi Araki and the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant.
Prior to the initial hearing, Tanaka, 52, received a letter from Shirakawa warning him that he would be ruined financially if the court ruled against him.
Tanaka has described the case as an example of what is known as a “SLAPP” (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) – a lawsuit designed to use the threat of mounting legal costs and ruinous damages to intimidate and silence the target, often an isolated journalist or small NGO. The aim is often not to win the case but just to silence critics and to deter others from coming to their support and repeating the criticism.
“It is obvious that this trial is a nuclear SLAPP from a person who has huge advantages as the head of an enterprise working for the nuclear industry and who is against an individual journalist,” Tanaka said.
Tanaka criticized the lawsuit at yesterday’s hearing and afterwards told Reporters Without Borders: “If I lose this fight, it will mean that no other journalist will later be able to write anything about the danger of the reopening nuclear reactor. (…) So this trial is very important for the future of all journalists.”
He also announced his intention of use the case as a weapon in the fight against censorship, together with Yu Terasawa and Hiro Ugaya, two other freelance journalists who have been targets of defamation suits.
This is not the first time that Shirakawa has bought lawsuits over this kind of story. He has brought SLAPPs against at least four media in the past three years including the Gekkan FACTA (Monthly FACTA), the Chuo Journaland the Tokyo OutLaws. Most of them gave into the pressure, settled out of court and did not talk publicly about the cases.
The Tanaka lawsuit is the first case of a SLAPP in the nuclear sector since the March 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, and the first case in which the target has been an individual freelancer.