Many British politicians would doubtless rejoice at the news that Andrew Marr, Emily Maitlis and Andrew Neil were to leave their jobs almost simultaneously.
That is the fate that has befallen what could loosely be described as their counterparts in Japan – Ichiro Furutachi, Hiroko Kuniya and Shigetada Kishii – three respected broadcasters with a reputation for asking tough questions.
Their imminent departure from evening news programmes is not just a loss to their profession; critics say they were forced out as part of a crackdown on media dissent by an increasingly intolerant prime minister, Shinzo Abe, and his supporters.
Only last week, the internal affairs minister, Sanae Takaichi, sent a clear message to media organisations. Broadcasters that repeatedly failed to show “fairness” in their political coverage, despite official warnings, could be taken off the air, she told MPs.
Under broadcast laws, the internal affairs minister has the power to suspend broadcasting that does not maintain political neutrality.
“This is nothing but intimidation against broadcasters,” the Japan Federation of Commercial Broadcast Workers’ Union said in a statement. “[Takaichi’s] remarks represent a glaring misinterpretation of the law and we demand that she promptly retract her remarks.”
What passes for a probing interview in Japan would be unlikely to set political pulses racing in Britain. But the three Japanese anchors have all courted controversy for refusing to follow the anodyne approach many of their colleagues take towards political coverage.
As the host of Hodo Station, a popular evening news programme on TV Asahi, Ichiro Furutachi was at the centre of a row last spring over claims by one of the show’s regular pundits, Shigeaki Koga, that he had been forced to quit under pressure from government officials angered by his criticism of the Abe administration.
Shigetada Kishii, who appears on News 23 on the TBS network, angered government supporters last year after criticising security legislation pushed through parliament by Abe’s Liberal Democratic party (LDP).
Perhaps most striking of all is the departure of Kuniya, the veteran presenter of Close-up Gendai, a current affairs programme on public broadcaster NHK.
Her “crime” had been to irritate Yoshihide Suga, the chief cabinet secretary and a close Abe ally, with an unscripted follow-up question during a discussion about the security legislation.
While the anchors themselves have refused to comment, experts say Abe and his allies had made their feelings known about the broadcasters during secretive dinners with top media executives.
“It was not their decision to leave,” said Sanae Fujita of the Human Rights Centre at Essex University. “But their bosses gave in to pressure from their senior colleagues, who are ‘friends’ with Abe.
“It is very worrying that the Japanese media are practising self-censorship in this way. They do not seem to be aware of their role as a watchdog.”
Koichi Nakano, a politics professor at Sophia University, said it was impossible to prove a direct link between the government and the termination of the anchors’ contracts.
“But there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that shows that Abe, and Suga in particular, have been very active in applying pressure and wining and dining media bosses,” Nakano said.
Critics cite the LDP’s decision last April to summon TV Asahi and NHK before a commission, where party officials accused the former of failing to be impartial in its political coverage – a reprimand Tatsuro Hanada, a professor of media studies at Waseda University in Tokyo, calls “de facto intimidation”.
Hanada said it was “no accident” that the trio of broadcasters had been targeted, since they all believed in the role of journalism as a guardian of the public interest against the abuse of power. “It was obvious that all three were unwilling to leave their jobs voluntarily,” he added.
It is not the first time that Abe has been embroiled in controversy over broadcasters’ editorial independence. In 2005, he admitted he had urged NHK staff to alter the contents of a documentary about wartime sex slaves.
When he called a snap election in late 2014, the LDP wrote to TV networks in Tokyo demanding that they “ensure fairness, neutrality and correctness” in their coverage.
Abe has also been accused of attempting to influence editorial decisions at NHK by hand-picking Katsuto Momii, a fellow conservative, as chairman.
Momii caused consternation after his appointment when he suggested that NHK would toe the government line on key diplomatic issues, including Japan’sterritorial dispute with China. “International broadcasting is different from domestic,” he said. “It would not do for us to say ‘left’ when the government is saying ‘right’.”
Attempts to intimidate the media as well as the passage of a state secrets law in 2013 under which reporters can be imprisoned for up to five years have battered Japan’s international reputation.
Last year it came 61st out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders’ global press freedom rankings. That compares with 12th place in 2010.
Fears that Japan’s government is resisting international scrutiny arose last December when it abruptly cancelled a visit by David Kaye, the UN special rapporteur for freedom of expression, saying it had been unable to arrange meetings with officials. Kaye is now scheduled to visit Japan in April.
“The ongoing attack on media freedom in Japan by the government and its rightwing associates is not about being on the right or the left — it is about destroying the foundations of a liberal democracy,” Nakano said.