The international media had a field day when Carlos Ghosn, former chairman of Nissan and Mitsubishi Motors, fled Japan in mysterious circumstances, hoping to avoid trial on charges of serious financial wrongdoing. He ranted against Japan’s ‘rigged’ justice system when he met the press in Lebanon; yet, as Duncan Bartlett reports, the authorities in Tokyo want him to return and face the courts
The former Nissan chairman Carlos Ghosn knew full well that he would have the undivided attention of the world’s media when he appeared at a press conference in Lebanon in January. At times, the sound of the camera shutters and questions from the reporters almost drowned out his words. But he kept on talking for a total of 144 minutes, with one dominant theme.
In his mind, he is innocent. He thinks he is the victim of a plot involving politicians in Japan’s government and leading business figures.
The journalists at the press conference were recording it all and the allegations spread immediately online, especially on sites where conspiracy theories thrive.
‘I’ve been in a kind of nightmare for thirteen months,’ said Mr Ghosn. ‘I didn’t escape because I was guilty. I escaped because I had zero chance of a fair trial.’
But something vital was missing. There was no explanation of how Ghosn exited Japan over the new year. In doing so, he breached a bail arrangement which allowed him to live fairly freely in Tokyo while he awaited trial.
He has good reason to omit that part of the story. Once he chooses to put an end to the mystery, the media’s interest will wane and they will become less willing to pay him attention or repeat the claims that he has been sorely mistreated.
Ghosn also told the press that he thinks many people in Japan still see him as ‘a respected businessman’. But the mood is changing and his adversaries are trying to swing public opinion against him.
Japan hits back
The Japanese authorities, meanwhile, are annoyed by the criticism levelled by Mr Ghosn and his supporters. They believe that the foreign media has a tendency to speak ill of their legal system, with little understanding of the context.
So, soon after Mr Ghosn’s rather chaotic press event in Lebanon, Japan’s Ministry of Justice organised another press event in Tokyo. Unusually, it took place after midnight.
Justice Minister Masako Mori said it was ‘absolutely intolerable’ thatCarlos Ghosn has been propagating ‘false information on Japan’s legal system and its practice’.
In effect, the two sides are engaged in an information war. This sets the media the challenge of sifting through the criticisms that Mr Ghosn is making of the Japanese legal system to see if they hold up to scrutiny. Few news organisations have the resources or appetite to do so. And anyway, the news cycle is already moving on to the next topic.
Carlos Ghosn was first arrested in Tokyo more than a year ago. Among other charges, prosecutors allege that he understated his income by millions of dollars and that he duped Nissan into paying money into his own personal investments.
Nissan believes it was the victim of fraud, undertaken on an audacious scale by a trusted leader. The company has cooperated with the prosecutors in gathering evidence ahead of a complex trial, which was to be conducted quite openly, in the glare of the media.
Rather than working with his skilled legal team in Japan, Mr Ghosn has decided to become a fugitive and is – as he told the press conference in Lebanon – fighting to clear his name.
Playing the press
Mr Ghosn has already strung reporters along with stories that were deliberately designed to distract from the serious charges against him. Even some of the world’s most respected institutions have run fake news about the case, such as the incredible claim that a band helped him out of Tokyo by hiding him in a musical instrument case.
Other journalists have been sucked into email exchanges with anonymous sources which are clearly trying to spin the headlines.
One question the media should legitimately ask is who is helping Mr Ghosn to stay on the run? Who, for example, is funding the security guards and aides who appeared alongside him at the press conference in Lebanon?
Mr Ghosn was a billionaire but his riches are depleting and the Japanese authorities plan to confiscate all the 1.5 billion yen ($14 million) he posted as bail.
No hiding place
There is little chance of Carlos Ghosn quietly returning to a normal life in Lebanon. Many people there have good reason to resent his behaviour and he has been questioned by Lebanon’s public prosecutor general. Lebanon is, after all, a joint signatory with Japan of an international accord against corruption.
Mr Ghosn said that he felt life in Tokyo was ‘a nightmare’ and claimed that he was being ‘held hostage’ there, even though he was able to walk to a French bakery to buy fresh bread each morning.
He may soon find that life in Beirut could be even less comfortable than the privileged existence he was enjoying in Japan, especially if the press turn against him or his Lebanese hosts lose patience.