Faced with a disaster on a scale unprecedented in postwar Japan, Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) government has been presented with a mammoth task in managing the initial rescue effort and the ongoing provision of emergency services. Compounding and almost over-shadowing the natural disaster is the seemingly endless crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

The fledgling DPJ are relatively untested in government. Formed by the merger of several opposition parties in 1998, the DPJ came to power in 2009, breaking the near unbroken rule of the Liberal Democratic Party. Having assumed office following the resignation of Yukio Hatoyama, Kan had only been in office nine months at the time of the of the March 11 disaster.

As attention began to turn from the vast destruction caused by the earthquake and tsunami to the threat posed by radiation, public disquiet simmered away at the quantity and quality of information provided by the government.

Enter cabinet secretary and the PM’s right-hand man Yukio Edano. While Kan has received criticism for his inaction in response to the crisis, Edano has been fondly lauded in the Japanese Twittersphere as “the Jack Bauer of Tokyo”.

Edano was at great pains to portray himself as doing his utmost at the peak of the crisis. In keeping with his 24-hour action-man persona, he took to donning a pair of blue technician’s overalls at press conferences he held at five o’clock in the morning.

Even as explosions tore through the Fukushima Daiichi plant days after the tsunami, the government tried to reassure a jittery public that all was under control — only for fires to break out soon after. Despite the platitudes, authorities were reduced to using water-bombing aircraft in an attempt to cool the reactors.

While the government has often proved ineffective at best at keeping the public informed, the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), operator of the Fukushima Daiichi plant, has been no better. Indeed TEPCO has a decades-long track record of failing to report, and actively concealing, safety incidents at its nuclear power plants in Japan.

While TEPCO and the government’s management of information reaching the public haVE been of little practical use to worried citizens, it has recently taken a more ominous turn.

Last month the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, along with Edano’s Cabinet Secretariat, issued a directive to several telecommunications and internet service provider (ISP) associations, informing them of the formation of a government “working group”. This working group, comprised of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Cabinet Secretariat and the National Police Agency, IS issuing “requests” to ISPs to delete “illegal” information deemed “harmful rumours” concerning the situation at Fukushima Daiichi.

The directive states:

There is concern regarding harmful rumors or improper information spread on the internet …  which may cause public anxiety since the Japan earthquake.

We therefore request organisations delete all information judged to be improper and also have related IT organisations belonging to you immediately delete all  messages from the internet, while considering freedom of speech.

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications explained to Crikey that they were not “censoring” internet-based information regarding the plant and radiation, but were merely issuing “requests”.

How these “requests” sit in regards to Article 21 of the Japanese constitution, which unequivocally stipulates that “… no censorship will be maintained”, the spokesman responded by again emphasising the voluntary nature of compliance. As to what, if any action is taken against those who declined these “requests”, the spokesperson would not be drawn to comment.

The process of these “requests” IS undertaken in a somewhat Byzantine approach; the National Police Agency is tasked with notifying the hosting ISP of offending material, THE ISP reports the case to the Telecom Services Association (TELESA), who in turn informs the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Cabinet Secretariat.

Crikey was told a request to the National Police Agency for a list of instances of “illegal information” will take several weeks to fulfil. The NPA also declined to comment on exactly what law it was that they had been tasked with enforcing.

TELESA lists on its website several instances of action taken against such “illegal information”, under their “guidelines for responding to illegal information on the internet”. Most cases concern blogs and “community (web)sites”, and lists reasons for action against offenders including the publishing of “incorrect information” and “artificially causing terror”.

The final decision on whether or not to take action against these “harmful rumours” rests with private companies — i.e. the ISPs. There appears to be no recourse to appeal, and no indication of what law is being enforced by this process.

As the recent sellout of Geiger counters in Tokyo demonstrates, the Japanese public is clearly sceptical of information supplied by the government and TEPCO. With the government now trying to censor any information on the situation at Fukushima Daiichi contrary to its party line, the public is left to further speculate on what information is perhaps being kept from them.

Attempting to censor a public already starved of meaningful information on the threat posed to their long-term health seems counter-productive — to say nothing of the implications on freedom of expression.  With elevated levels of radiation recently found on crops further south of Fukushima than the 30 million-plus greater Tokyo area, the government’s attempts to prevent “harmful rumours” may well backfire.