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Is the IOC putting a torch to ‘freedom of speech’?

  • April 24, 2021
  • , The Japan Times
  • English Press



Japan’s five leading national daily newspapers are all either official partners or official supporters of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, which means they are ultimately invested in their success.


Coverage of the official activities leading up to July’s opening ceremony began with the torch relay on March 25 in Fukushima Prefecture, and Tokyo Shimbun, which does not have a partnership deal, arguably provided the most thorough coverage.


With guidelines still in place to restrict spectator numbers along the relay course due to the pandemic, the event posed its own peculiar set of problems, including what the newspaper cited as the questionable taste of the flashy vehicles provided by sponsors. Tokyo Shimbun also took issue with the loud music blaring from speakers and a DJ who didn’t wear a mask. According to reporter Ryo Harada, local spectators were also critical of the festival atmosphere.


On March 28, Tokyo Shimbun removed an edited video of that event from its homepage in compliance with the International Olympic Committee’s News Access Rules (NAR). Those rules state that media outlets without officially approved status can upload video content of Olympics-related events for news coverage purposes, but they can only keep that content public for a maximum of 72 hours after the event takes place. On April 2, the newspaper posted a message saying it had received complaints for removing the video of the torch relay and took the criticism seriously. In fact, Harada told the local organizing committee in February during an explanation session about coverage of the torch relay that he thought the 72-hour rule was unfair given that the event would be taking place on public roads and people had a right to know what was going on. He was told that the decision was made by the IOC, as if that were enough of an explanation.


Though Tokyo Shimbun complied with the NAR, the reporter later asked the IOC directly why it thought it had the right to control video coverage that was done for newsgathering purposes in public spaces. The IOC answered that it had to strike a balance between broadcasters who had paid for exclusive rights to the games and other media that were simply covering it as news. The IOC guarantees these exclusive rights to broadcasters because 90% of the money they pay in exchange for these rights is distributed throughout the entire international Olympics movement, thus implying that the games couldn’t happen without this cooperation.


While Tokyo Shimbun mentions possible lawsuits regarding copyright violations, the most meaningful punishment would be for the IOC to bar the offending media outlet from any further Olympic coverage, presumably by withholding or revoking its press credentials. But Tokyo Shimbun has a point: The torch relay takes place in public spaces, and since the media is supposed to serve the people of Japan by providing it with information, what right does the IOC have to limit coverage of events that happen in spaces owned by the public? It’s as if the Olympic sanction gives related organizations a special ability to set their own rules exclusive of those in effect in a given locality.


Similarly, on April 1, the 2020 Tokyo Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games published a message on its homepage criticizing the weekly magazine Shukan Bunshun for publishing a leaked confidential document, sent in April 2020 to the IOC, that explained the opening ceremony in detail. According to the committee, by publicly revealing the contents of the ceremony beforehand, Shukan Bunshun “diminishes” its “value” (kachi wa ōkiku kison saremasu) and thus interferes with the work of the committee.

What’s striking about the complaint is that it accuses Bunshun of revealing the document “deliberately” (itoteki ni), as if the committee has no idea what journalists do.


The committee did not say that Bunshun’s report was false. It simply said that the document it revealed was secret and demanded that the publisher remove the related content from its website and recall all physical copies that contained it, otherwise it would face a lawsuit for copyright infringement. The publisher refuted the notion that the magazine had done anything improper. Several days later, the Japan Mass Media Culture Information Workers’ Union Conference posted an open letter condemning the committee for attempting to obstruct freedom of the press.


On April 2, the committee ran another message demanding a retraction from the Mainichi Shimbun for an article about the enormous pay that venue managers would be receiving. The committee said the article was misleading in that the committee had nothing to do with personnel or wages, that they simply distributed funds to operation management companies.


Though that may be the case, it doesn’t mean Mainichi’s reporting was wrong about the money. The newspaper clarified that the committee “did not place orders for these amounts,” but it did not take down the article, which still gives the impression that there are people and organizations making a killing from an Olympic Games whose budget has skyrocketed since Tokyo first put in its bid.


The Mainichi Shimbun is an official partner of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, so at least in its case it hasn’t compromised journalistic principles in exchange for the kind of access to Olympic events and personnel — including athletes — that media partners presumably enjoy. In fact, Mainichi seems to be the only national daily (Tokyo Shimbun is, technically, a regional newspaper) that is actively and consistently watching the Olympics and related stories with a critical eye, which just goes to show that you can still support something and hold it publicly accountable at the same time.

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