Members of ruling Liberal Democratic Party have demanded that newspapers be pressured to toe the line on government security policy, raising new questions about interference in a free and fair press in Japan.
Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party is desperately trying to draw a line under comments by junior members of the party who demanded that media outlets critical of the government's security policies be punished, pressured into compliance or even shut down.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has stated that the party respects freedom of speech, Sadakzau Tanigaki, the party secretary general, called a press conference to apologize for the comments and Minoru Kihara, the head of the party's Youth Division and organizer of the June 25 meeting, has been sacked.
Hideo Onishi, who caused much of the anger by demanding that media be "punished" for criticizing the government, was among three politicians given "severe warnings" for their actions.
The lawmakers' comments have caused such resentment among the media, the public and opposition political parties, however, that the government is struggling to refocus the public's attention elsewhere.
"It was hubris. It was worse than that; it was stupid hubris," Jun Okumura, a visiting scholar at the Meiji Institute for Global Affairs, told DW.
'Complacent and arrogant'
"These are the actions of a political party that has seen its opposition in disarray in recent years and that has made them complacent and arrogant," Okumura said.
But such comments are not all that far removed from the more subtle persuasions that many believe are increasingly being applied to Japanese media by the government - through cozy alliances with proprietors and pressure on editors - to ensure that its voice remains the dominant one.
"It may very well be that these young politicians believed they knew what Abe is thinking when it comes to the media and that they had license to say these things out loud," said Okumura.
"And I find it quite telling that while Abe has said he 'respects the freedom of expression as the foundations of a democracy,' he has made no direct apology for what was said, either as prime minister or head of the LDP," he added.
The closest Abe has come to condemning the comments was when he described them as "extremely regrettable."
The furor broke after around 40 members of the party attended a meeting addressed by Naoki Hyakuta. The well-known author used the opportunity to attack the media for its coverage of the government's efforts to revise legislation to enable Japan's armed forces to play a more active role in conflicts and be more proactive in military alliances.
Hyakuta reportedly said, "There are a lot of shameless, unpatriotic articles apparently trying to lower Japan."
During subsequent discussions, a politician suggested that pressure be brought to bear on the media by using the Japan Business Federation to encourage member companies to withhold advertising from media that did not support the government's policies.
Another speaker agreed that losing advertising revenue "is the best way to punish the media."
Two newspapers in Okinawa came in for particular criticism, with Hyakuta saying The Ryukyu Shimpu and The Okinawa Times need to be "destroyed" for their negative coverage of US military bases in the prefecture.
The opposition Japan Innovation Party has criticized the LDP for being "arrogant"; the Japan Communist Party has demanded that the prime minister apologize personally; in an editorial, the centrist Mainichi newspaper accused the government of attempting to control the freedom of the press.
"It is reprehensible," said Shigeaki Koga, a former bureaucrat who has become a critic of the government, as well as accusing the media of surrendering its impartiality to politicians.
"It is one thing to disagree with the media for political position, but it is imperative that we recognize their right to express that opinion," he told DW.
"The public's right to freedom of speech is guaranteed under Article 21 of the constitution and there is absolutely no justification for suggestions that newspapers should be destroyed for their editorial lines," he said.
Above the constitution
"But these people - who have become Japan's political leaders - seem to consider that their beliefs are more correct and important than the constitution," he added. "This, to me, shows that democracy in this country is clearly in crisis.
"And more than ever, the media have the responsibility to tell the people that."
There are suggestions that the debate over the apparent desire in some sections of the government to muzzle the press will have a knock-on effect on discussions on the security bills that are presently working their way through the Diet. The ruling LDP, with its coalition partner Komeito, has a large majority in both houses of the Japanese parliament, but polls suggest that well over half of the public here is opposed to legislation that they feel could embroil the nation in another conflict.
"I feel that Abe and the team he has installed around himself are out of step with the sentiments of the majority of the Japanese public," said Okumura. "This incident could very well serve to be the best weapon the opposition has in its armory as the political maneuvering continues.
"If used well, it could discredit the Abe administration and highlight the arrogance and lack of discipline that exists within the party," he added.