Abusive legal procedure against freelance journalist

The Tokyo National Lawyers’ Hall is uncomfortably quiet. No Japanese journalist has come to the audition. Hiromichi Ugaya’s trial unravels, unnoticed by his peers. Libel suits are too common an occurrence in Japan for this one doesn’t to attract more attention. Ugaya is now ending his second year of unending hearings. Trial after trial, he attempts to resist the pressure of both judges and the plaintiff. Definitely an uneasy state of affairs for a freelance journalist.

The situation is quite preposterous: In 2006, Ugaya was quoted by a peer, from the magazine Cyzo. Toshikazu Kobayashi is trying to establish an association between Oricon (the Japanese version of Billboard) and Johnny’s Entertainment, perhaps the most influential male idol breeding company of the archipelago. Kobayashi phoned Ugaya, who claimed he then refused to comment on the association but provided other information.

A few months later, Oricon filed a libel suit against Ugaya.

Ugaya’s comment is short, edited, and implies heavily that Oricon and Johnny’s entertainment have some partnership. Indeed, another recently appeared Billboard, SoundScan, shows lower sales for Johnny’s artists than Oricon does.

According to Ugaya, he “did not write a single line in the article that Oricon is suing over. They [Cyzo] wrote, to be accurate, summarized Ugaya’s comment into about 20 lines, and quoted it. Ugaya’s [oral] comment is doubly or triply confirmed information,” states his personal website.

Cyzo’s reporters and its publisher are left untouched. Oricon issued a statement in February, 2007, to explain the interesting fact that, “In this lawsuit, the comment based on apparent misinterpretation of facts is the cause of the claim for damages by libel and the point of issue. We were concerned about spreading the point of issue across the entire article and making it obscure by suing the publisher of magazine, INFOBAHN Inc.” The disclosed aim of the procedure is to attack this one journalist, but why such a disproportionate attack?

Actually, the real reason of this suit may be that Oricon didn’t appreciate another article which Ugaya wrote, and published in February 2003’s issue of Aera. “This was not the first time for Mr. Ugaya to libel us,” claims the statement, “We could not help but consider his influence to the media was not small.” This other article couldn’t be part of the lawsuit because it had reached the statute-of-limitations period.

Cyzo issued a statement as well, in order to express its support to Ugaya. It is no longer available on the publication’s website.

So today, as for the last 26 months, Ugaya must prove that these comments he never made are true, while financially maintaining himself. For the problem of this trial also involves money. Indeed, at first, Oricon asks for $556,000, but the judges “only” condemn the journalist to pay $11,000. Ugaya appealed, but the legal fees have already been double the amount. Paying for his lawyer alone was $14.000.

Unfortunately, the Japanese legal system is not providing protection for the journalist. “The Tokyo High Court insists we should settle, so in-chamber conferences are going on one after another. But my decision is, ‘Why the hell do I have to?’ So negotiation is heated up. Unfortunately I have found out that my country’s judges view writing ruling is a troublesome job and it disturbs their ‘efficiency’.” says Ugaya. He explains his interest does not lie in a settlement. Indeed, the more noise he makes, the more chances he has to attract attention on his trial and therefore win.

Ugaya has already been offered a way out, but declined. Koh Koide, Oricon’s head, stated he would drop the suit if Ugaya apologized publicly. However, doing so would ruin his reputation. And since a freelancer wins his bread through his credibility, the solution is therefore unacceptable.

In January 2007, the French organization Reporters Without Borders has asked Oricon to drop the suit against Ugaya. The reason? Financial again. “The sum asked of Hiro Ugaya by Oricon is completely disproportionate and risks ruining this independent journalist.” The procedure was met with no reaction. Ugaya’s story has also been conveyed by foreign publications such as Newsweek or Libération.

One of the most cliché sayings in Japan goes, “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.” Unfortunately for him, Ugaya is getting hammered down. But should the Oricon win the case, other journalists may find themselves in the same situation.

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