Ruling seeks fairness over NHK fee burden

The Yomiuri Shimbun

The NHK broadcasting center is seen in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo, on Wednesday.

By Yuri Ishihama / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterIf NHK files a lawsuit against someone who has a television but refuses to pay the subscription fee, the public broadcaster can — after its victory in the suit is finalized — collect the entire amount of fees dating from when the TV was installed.

The first ruling on this issue by the Supreme Court’s Grand Bench will give a helpful boost to NHK as it seeks to collect fees from people who do not pay. However, some analysts have pointed out it is unrealistic for NHK to start court proceedings against all of the about 9 million households across Japan that do not pay subscription fees, so how the broadcaster handles this issue will be closely watched.

Wednesday’s ruling acknowledged the significance of NHK’s “receiving fee” system.

“The receiving fee is in place to satisfy the public’s right to know, and its ultimate objective is to contribute to a robust democracy,” the ruling said.

The Constitution guarantees the “freedom of contract,” and the man who was the defendant in this case had insisted that forcing TV owners to sign a contract with NHK was “unconstitutional.”

But unlike other countries where TV owners are legally obligated to pay a reception fee and people who refuse to pay can be punished, the Broadcast Law only states that any person who has installed “equipment capable of receiving the broadcasting provided by NHK shall conclude a contract with NHK.” The law does not mention any penalty for failing to pay the fee. The Japanese system supporting NHK through viewers voluntarily paying the reception fee also has become one factor behind the growing awareness that the fee is “in exchange for viewing” NHK — Nippon Hoso Kyokai — broadcasts.

However, the ruling pointed out that NHK, as “a public broadcaster constituting one side of the dual system with private broadcasters, is autonomously operated and supported by everyone who has installed a TV.”

The ruling placed heavy emphasis on the public’s “right to know” and the “freedom of expression” guaranteed by the Constitution, which swayed the top court toward deeming the fee system to be constitutional.

Prof. Tatsuhiko Yamamoto of Keio University Law School, an expert on the Constitution, said: “It was no surprise the court ruled the system was constitutional. However, it’s possible the public will scrutinize NHK even more strictly over whether it really is fulfilling its role as a public broadcaster.”

Fee-dodging ‘unacceptable’

The Grand Bench also indicated the period for which people without an NHK contract should pay the reception fee.

The bench attached great importance to ensuring fairness for people who have already been paying the fee. The court stated people without a contract “have an obligation to pay the full amount of fees from when they installed a TV,” a decision based on the view it would be unfair if a person who signed a contract right away and a person who bought a TV at the same time but refused to pay ended up paying different amounts to NHK.

The statute of limitations on NHK’s right to demand payment of the reception fee expires after five years. The bench decided the clock for this statute of limitations should start from the point when NHK’s victory in a lawsuit against a person who had not paid the fee was finalized and the contract thereby concluded. This interpretation allows NHK to demand that a person who had no contract make back payments going further into the past than the five-year limit that would apply to a non-payer who had a contract.

“The decision on the starting point for the statute of limitations was one key point of this ruling,” a veteran judge told The Yomiuri Shimbun. “I think people will become increasingly aware that trying to gain [financially] by dodging fee payments is unacceptable.”

Lingering problems

Since 2011, NHK has filed 284 lawsuits against households that refuse to sign viewer contracts. NHK has never lost. But, another veteran judge comments, “If NHK continues to take legal actions, they must prove facts such as the date when the television was installed by a viewer without a contract. If they take such trouble or cost into consideration, it is an unrealistic option to pursue every single transgression.”

On the other hand, lower courts are currently deciding whether to regard viewers who, for example, use mobile phones with a one-seg function for viewing NHK programs or residents who live in rental living quarters that come equipped with televisions as people who must also pay the fee. The judgments by lower courts are divided, and the latest ruling by the Supreme Court’s Grand Bench did not touch on these issues. The highest court is expected to announce a conclusion after such cases reach it. Speech

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