UPDATE1: TV watchdog says ex-researcher Obokata "defamed" with NHK program
Japan Broadcasting Corp. "defamed" former researcher Haruko Obokata through its television program aired in July 2014 that featured retracted stem cell studies carried out by her and other researchers, an ethics organization in broadcasting said Friday.
Obokata was the lead author of a pair of papers that appeared in British journal Nature in January 2014, which claimed to demonstrate a new way to produce stem cells through a process dubbed stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency, or STAP. But the reports were retracted in July that year after she was accused of research fraud.
In the popular documentary program series called "NHK Special," the public broadcaster showed as if Obokata made the STAP cells by using embryonic stem cells or ES cells which she obtained through "some kind of misconduct." But the broadcasting watchdog doubted the credibility of the information.
"We see here a human rights violation of defamation," a panel overseeing human rights violation issues in the Broadcasting Ethics & Program Improvement Organization, a nongovernmental body established by the broadcasting industry, said in its report.
NHK aired the conclusion in line with the panel's recommendation and said it "sincerely" accepts the outcome. But it denied having contravened human rights, in a rare rebuttal by a broadcaster that has been admonished by the organization.
"We have created the program based on extensive coverage and objective facts, while also taking note of our expressions," NHK said in a statement.
Obokata, 33, said through her lawyer she was grateful that the organization recognized the problems of the NHK program, while noting, "The impact of the program on my life will remain forever."
Obokata has no plan to file a lawsuit at the moment, the lawyer, Hideo Miki, said.
In the report, the ethics panel said the 49-minute program was problematic because it did not just allege that ES cells were used to create the STAP cells, but because it also indicated Obokata had used improper means to obtain the ES cells, made by a former foreign student in the laboratory of Teruhiko Wakayama, a co-author of the STAP cell papers.
While attributing the defamation mainly to problems in editing, the panel said the high public attention seen toward the young female scientist at that time may have propelled the program creators to portray Obokata as a "culprit of misconduct."
The ethics panel also pointed out that there were "problems in terms of broadcast ethics" in the way Obokata was chased by reporters even though she was refusing to talk to them.
The panel had looked into the issue as Obokata filed a complaint in 2015, saying she suffered an "extremely serious human rights violation" due to the program which showed as if she had "stolen" ES cells and conducted experiments.
The Riken research institute, which Obokata had belonged to, concluded in December 2014 that the STAP cells were most likely ES cells.