Whistleblowers to remain public enemy No.1 without all-out support by the media

Sunday, November 14 2004 @ 11:22 AM JST

Contributed by: Y.Yamamoto

Having lagged far behind other industrialized countries, Japan saw in June this year the passage of a bill to safeguard those courageous insiders who dare to disclose, in the public interest, their first-hand knowledge about their employers' practices in violation of the governing laws or the business ethics.

Before the legislation a whistleblower was considered public enemy number one not only because whistleblowing constituted a major treason against the organization he is working for but because the whistleblower was considered an unforgivable traitor to the entire society where perfect harmony always prevails so the people don't have to turn each other in, like in North Korea or China, to maintain social order.

Now-defunct Snow Brand Food Co., Ltd. was a typical example before the legislation. In September 2001, the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries decided to impose on every meatpacking company a requirement for blanket testing on domestic beef carcasses in the wake of a discovery of a suspected mad cow case. Soon afterward the MAFF launched a program in which to buy back domestic beef that had been slaughtered before the emergency statute took effect. Meatpackers were only required to submit a certificate issued by the warehousing company to be eligible for the MAFF's subsidy on the condition that the certificate stated the country of origin as Japan. It was against this backdrop that Snow Brand Food repacked approximately 30 tons of beef it had imported from Australia to relabel them as domestic beef.

When the company-wide plot was somehow uncovered on January 23, 2002, the president had to step down and the medium-sized subsidiary of equally scam-tainted Snow Brand Milk Products Co., Ltd had to fold up in a matter of 3 months. It was later learned that the fraud case had been brought to light when Yoichi Mizutani, a 50-year-old man running a small warehousing company by the name of Nishinomiya Reizo, made up his mind to whistleblow to the MAFF on the relabeling operation he had been forced to work on after 3 months of sleepless nights. Was he rewarded for his courage? Yes, he was.

In the U.S. Mizutani might have received a million dollar bounty because he saved the taxpayers much more than that. But he did what he did in the wrong country. His reward was an order for business suspension on the charge of forgery. Although Nishinomiya Reizo's dependence on the Snow Brand business had been in the neighborhood of 10%, he had to lay off every one of his 20 employees because of the suspension order by the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport.

Now that a legislative measure was belatedly taken in June to supposedly protect whistleblowers from being incriminated, you may assume that we are better off to reveal whatever has to be revealed from inside of the rotten organization. But you are wrong. Some experts argue that the post-legislation situation is even worse in that:
1) A whistleblower is eligible for the legal protection only when he blows the whistle after exhausting every possible way to rectify his problem internally.
2) His accusation will be taken seriously only when he whistle-blows internally or to the jurisdictional authority while some of these governing ministries and agencies have had a track record of just passing the signed accusation back to his employer.
3) In principle a whistleblower is not exempted from secrecy obligation he has incurred, written or unwritten, with his employer.
4) The employer will not be penalized for retaliating against the whistleblowing in one way or the other.
5) The whistleblower will be held responsible onus probandi-wise.
6) To be acknowledged as a "lawful" whistleblower, he has to be a regular employee of the organization. A contractor will not be protected by the law.
The list of the problematic stipulations in the law goes on and on.

In fact I have sourced these pieces of information mostly from a talk show on the TV Asahi on the morning of November 14. The editorial views and news selection/placement criteria of the Asahi Shimbun daily, the flagship medium of the Japan's No.2 media enterprise, are, modestly put, lukewarm and obtuse when dealing with Chinese and North Korean issues. On the other hand the Asahi media group at times runs an incisive and relevant article or talk show when it comes to domestic issues. But on that particular TV program that addressed the issue with the legislation for safeguarding whistleblowers, they concluded that the law must be amended in the near future to better protect those who are struggling to straighten things out with their almost unreformable organizations.

The talk show hastily drew that conclusion when time was up but they were just getting around the real question: "When will the media in this nation realize that they should, and could, play a pivotal role in helping those believers in reform from within out of downright persecution by their employers and the governing authorities?". At least the media people should know that an amendment to the law, alone, will not make a great difference.

Any organization more or less mirrors the nation in which it does business. And this nation is almost unreformable. By the same token there are very few organizations in Japan that are equipped with a self-purification mechanism. Under the circumstances whistleblowing here is something more than just a "bypass" to resort to only after exhausting direct appeals to their bosses who invariably turn a deaf ear. This is all the more true because in today's world, a whistleblower's proposition can be convincingly valid only when he has a reformer's mindset lined with first-hand professional knowledge. Hence the only people who could lend him a helping hand from outside are those working at the media organizations.

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