Prominent figures in Japan’s media, academia and the arts have spoken out against self-censorship over how the Japanese government handled the recent Islamic State militant group's hostage crisis. At a press conference Tuesday at the National Diet building, they said that any critical discussion of the government had been labeled “unpatriotic” and supportive of the terrorists.

“Since the beginning of the January hostage incident to its resolution, the ending had been a great disappointment. And in that time, the reluctance to air any critical rhetoric against the government was very widespread,” said journalist Hajime Imai at the conference. He said he was concerned about the inability to criticize those in power, adding that a petition titled “A Statement in Opposition to Self-Restraint," had been shared more than 15,000 times and received nearly 3,000 signatures.


The petition, started by New York-based filmmaker Kazuhiro Soda last month, said that the calls for “self-restraint” were reminiscent of Japan’s wartime atmosphere, where all discussions of the regime had to be approving and no dissent was tolerated. “As events have unfolded in recent weeks, there has been strong societal pressure in Japan for broadcasters and others in the mass media to practice 'self-restraint' and avoid any criticism of how the government has handled the hostage crisis,” stated the petition. “This societal pressure has extended even to the level of attempts at controlling how elected National Diet members question government policy.”

Japan had been wrestling to save the lives of its citizens Kenji Goto and Haruna Yukawa after they were both shown in a hostage video from the militant group also known as ISIS last month. While Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had vowed to save their lives no matter what, he also said he would not give in to terrorism and refused to pay the $200 million ransom. ISIS eventually released videos showing the brutal killings of both Goto and Yukawa.

Some critics of how Abe handled the situation received censure. Japanese Communist Party member Saori Ikeuchi criticized Abe's government in a tweet. She was then rebuked by the JCP head Kazuo Shii, who said that such criticism was inappropriate, according to the Japan Times. Ikeuchi later deleted her tweet and apologized. Other examples of "self-restraint," known as "jishuku" in Japanese, include the boy band KAT-TUN choosing to perform "White Lovers" on a popular TV music show on Jan. 23, instead of its new song "Dead or Alive," according to the Associated Press.

Notable names have signed the free speech petition, including renowned musician Ryuichi Sakamoto, social critic Tatsuru Uchida and reporter Keiko Tsuyama, according to the site Global Voices. “What’s happening is that the public space for discussion and criticism in Japan is shrinking,” Koichi Nakano, a Sophia University professor who signed the statement, told Japan Times.

The petition cited Article 21 of the Japanese Constitution that protects freedom of speech, press and assembly, and highlighted that these rights are inviolate, no matter if “extreme times” were at hand. The Abe government recently confiscated a journalist’s passport, depriving him of his right to travel to Syria over fears that he might be captured by ISIS, as well.