Sunday, June 29, 2014

A rush to judgment can easily sabotage the truth (Journalists – a lesson you may wish to appreciate)

When a residential neighborhood was targeted for indiscriminate terrorism in 1994, the headline that accompanied The Asahi Shimbun's initial report read, "Mysterious Poison Gas Kills Seven." The incident was shocking and deeply disturbing.

Around midnight on June 27 exactly 20 years ago, the deadly nerve gas sarin was sprayed in the city of Matsumoto, in Nagano Prefecture. It was not until months later that this heinous crime was tied to the doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo.

We must never let the memory of this incident fall into oblivion. There are endless lessons to be learned from it. That is especially true for members of the media, of whom I am one. The most egregious and regrettable mistake was that we treated Yoshiyuki Kono, a victim and the first person to report the incident, as the prime suspect. The Asahi Shimbun did not print a formal apology until 1995.

Kono pointed out during a recent lecture, "It is the nature of the mass media to start losing their balance in the face of some sensational crime or unprecedented incident."

It pains me that we cannot completely refute Kono's claim even today. I can only keep reminding myself to double- and triple-check every bit of information and shun all presumptions.

In the immediate aftermath of the Matsumoto sarin attack, Kono's home phone rang off the hook with hate-filled calls. He also received loads of threatening letters. "I was made Public Enemy No. 1," he recalled in a piece he contributed to The Asahi Shimbun. It was a clear case of the media's mistake driving an innocent man into a corner.

"The paradigm of elimination" is what Kono calls the general public's overt demonstration of hatred for specific groups of people. He has become fully aware that there are people today who are being made to suffer the same torment he himself once endured--namely, Korean residents in Japan who are being subjected to hate speech.

When human rights advocates and others formed "Norikoenet" (The International Network to Overcome Hate Speech and Racism) last year, Kono became one of its co-directors. In a recent book published by Norikoenet, Kono denounced the absurdity of exclusionism.

What befell Kono after the Matsumoto sarin attack 20 years ago remains a mirror image of present-day Japan.

--The Asahi Shimbun,


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