YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — Stars and Stripes wanted to know whether Japanese prosecutors would indict a Navy officer accused of groping and assaulting a Japanese woman aboard a flight from San Diego to Tokyo in March.

What we ended up getting, after speaking with government officials, academics and reporters, was a glimpse into why some groups, both domestically and internationally, view Japan as increasingly hostile to freedom of information and the public’s right to know.

Narita International Airport police, who don’t normally get many calls on crime stories compared with their Tokyo-based colleagues, amicably discussed the facts of the March 18 arrest. Witnesses told police the Navy lieutenant touched a 19-year-old woman’s thigh and struck her in the head repeatedly during a roughly 90-minute time frame, before another passenger reported the disturbance to a flight attendant.

In most democratic countries, such details are considered matters of public record. In Japan, however, information often becomes the purview of a small, members-only club.

Japan’s press club system exists throughout the country’s bureaucracy, from the prime minister’s office to local courts. Rules vary between clubs. They are often within the government agency and encourage a cozy relationship between government officials and reporters, according to analysts and journalists who spoke with Stars and Stripes.

When our reporter phoned the Chiba Public Prosecutor’s Office in March to ask whether the Navy officer would be prosecuted in Japan, the answer essentially was: You’re not in the club, so we won’t tell you.

When we followed up in April and asked why the policy was so restrictive, an official said there was a recent move to “open doors” to non-club journalists.

Chiba prosecutors would answer questions from non-club members if a news organization registered during a once-per-year sign-up period; if it published a set quota of crime stories; and, if it showed up in person at the far-flung Chiba office for bimonthly press conferences.

Even then, no questions would be answered by phone or outside of the press conference.

Press clubs were “originally formed for reporters to unite to monitor and check authorities,” said Yasuhiko Tajima, professor of media law at Sophia University in Tokyo. “But you have to wonder if [they] can do it now.”

At their best, press clubs can still uphold laudable standards for reporting, Tajima said. They can push for information disclosure on a level that individual journalists normally wouldn’t be able to accomplish in Japan — but that isn’t happening very often, he said.

Critical questions aren’t being asked at the press conferences, many of which are run by the clubs and exclude nonmembers.

“They are not serious about monitoring authorities, revealing new facts and providing important information to the people,” Tajima said. “[News conferences] have become a ceremony.”

The paucity of watchdog journalism might stem from fear that stepping out of line will get journalists fired.

Earlier this year, Japan’s internal affairs minister sent a message to major Japanese news outlets stating that those who weren’t showing “fairness” in their political coverage could be taken off the air, according to a report from the British newspaper The Guardian. A week later, three broadcast journalists known for critical questions lost their jobs, according to the Guardian and other foreign news outlets.

“I have also received first-hand reports of newspapers delaying or canceling the publication of articles, or demoting or transferring reporters after writing articles critical of the government,” David Kaye, United Nations special rapporteur on the right to freedom of expression, said during a Tokyo visit on April 19.

Press clubs “value access and exclusion,” damaging the roles that independent and online journalism can play in a democracy, he added.

“Media management develop close relationships with senior government officials, in which the regulator and regulated dine together at Tokyo restaurants,” Kaye said. “And yet no broad union of journalists brings together mainstream and freelance reporters, limiting the possibility of solidarity and advocacy and shared purpose.”

The press club system requires significant reform, Tajima said, particularly at a time when freedom-of-information rights appear to be falling off.

A Reporters Without Borders annual ranking of world press freedoms in April ranked Japan 72nd, part of a continuing downward trend since ranking 11th globally in 2010.

The ranking made a particular note of a new secrecy law that civic groups say could be used to prosecute journalists, though government officials have said that would not normally happen.

However, Stars and Stripes wasn’t looking for anything approaching a state secret — just whether a Naval Air Facility Atsugi sailor arrested more than a month ago would face charges.

The Navy isn’t as restrictive about taking questions as the Chiba Public Prosecutor’s Office. While short on detail in the interest of the sailor’s privacy, the Navy confirmed the sailor flew out of Japan on March 26 and faces either administrative or military justice action.

If Japan planned to prosecute, the sailor would have faced flight restrictions.

Japan’s major media outlets printed and broadcasted the sailor’s arrest in March. However, after searching the internet on the decision not to prosecute, it does not appear that either the press club or the prosecutor’s office deemed it worthy to report.

Stars and Stripes reporter Hana Kusumoto contributed to this report. Twitter:@eslavin_stripes

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