By Linda Sieg
TOKYO, Feb 24 (Reuters) - Worries are growing in Japan about a trend of media self-censorship as journalists and experts say news organizations are toning down criticism of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government for fear of sparking ire and losing access to sources.
No one is accusing Abe's administration of overt meddling in specific news coverage, but media insiders and analysts say the government's message is getting through.
"The media did, in recent years, play a much more positive role in ... making people in power squirm. In the Abe era, they have begun pulling back," said Jeffrey Kingston, director of Asian studies at Temple University's Japan campus.
"There is a chilling atmosphere that encourages media organizations to exercise self-restraint."
The conservative Abe, who returned to office in 2012, had fraught media ties during his first term, which ended when he quit in 2007 after a year of scandals and ill-health.
This time, Abe wants to avoid the same mistake, experts say.
His appointee as chairman of NHK public television, Katsuto Momii, raised doubts about the respected broadcaster's independence when he told his first news conference in early 2014: "We cannot say left when the government says right."
Late last year, a ruling party aide to Abe wrote to television broadcasters ahead of an election demanding fair coverage. Many journalists took the letter as a signal they should dampen criticism or risk losing access to officials.
"There have been cases of media self-restraint in the past, but they usually involved the imperial family, or, as after the 2011 tsunami and nuclear disaster, when media adopted a sober tone," said Shinichi Hisadome, a foreign news editor at the Tokyo Shimbun, a feisty metropolitan daily regarded in media circles as less submissive than national media.
"I think this is the first time that criticism of the government itself has been so restrained," Hisadome said.
Experts say the result is a far friendlier tone toward the government even among media that previously were critical.
"Criticism of the government has dropped sharply," said Kozo Nagata, a former NHK producer and now a professor of media studies at Musashi University.
In one example of the climate, a producer of TV Asahi's Hodo Station, a nightly news show known for not pulling punches, will be shifted to a new post from April because she would not heed internal warnings not to criticize Abe's government, two sources familiar with the matter said.
An outspoken guest commentator will also be replaced, the sources said. Former trade ministry official Shigeaki Koga, who sparked a flap last month by criticizing Abe over a hostage crisis that ended with the killing of two Japanese captives by Islamic State militants, told Reuters he had been told he would not be asked to appear as a guest on the show after March.
TV Asahi told Reuters nothing had been decided regarding personnel or guest commentators.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters on Tuesday the government fully respected press freedom. Referring to criticism of Abe on television over the hostage crisis that he said misrepresented facts, he added: "Seeing that, don't you think freedom truly is guaranteed in Japan?"
Journalists and experts, though, say the trend toward self-censorship has worsened since the hostage crisis. Nearly 3,000 people including journalists and scholars signed a statement this month raising concern about freedom of expression.
"We've reached the stage where even without the government doing anything, mass media produce articles that cozy up to authorities or refrain from criticism," Koga said.
"The public is not getting the right information to make decisions."
(Additional reporting by Kentaro Hamada, Mari Saito and Takashi Umekawa; Editing by Robert Birsel)