WASHINGTON (CN) – A U.S. journalist says National Geographic hired him to work behind the scenes on a documentary on Japanese organized crime, but the company plans to broadcast next week a “factually inaccurate or sensationalist ‘docudrama'” that could get him killed, as it includes interviews with a crime syndicate boss and Yakuza who have threatened the reporter’s life.
Joshua Adelstein sued National Geographic Television for breach of contract, interference and infliction of emotional distress, claiming the company is putting him in harm’s way by ignoring his advice, interviewing criminals, and planning to broadcast the interviews without their permission.
Adelstein says National Geographic hired him in May 2010 as an independent contractor on the project, which was originally supposed to be a documentary “on how the Yakuza was forming corporations in Japan in an attempt to transform itself from a traditional organized crime organization into ‘Yakuza, Incorporated.'”
He agreed to provide the company with contact names of experts in the field and to perform on-camera and voice-over work.
“Mr. Adelstein made it very clear to National Geographic Television that, based on his expertise in dealing with the Yakuza, interviewing and/or filming anyone who was a currently active member of the Yakuza, or anyone who presently had direct dealings with the Yakuza, was extremely dangerous and could lead to physical violence and even death for anyone involved in or association with the interview/filming,” he states in his complaint.
Despite his warnings, the documentary’s director (nonparty) Phil Day interviewed two active members of the Yakuza, a restaurant owner who paid the Yakuza for protection and even an active Yakuza boss, Adelstein claims.
Adelstein says the interviews took place while he was in the United States visiting his daughter on her birthday.
He says Day told two young members of the group that he was associated with Adelstein, prompting one of the members to make “an anonymous phone call, threatening him with physical violence.”
Adelstein says the members wanted their interviews taken out of the documentary, even if their faces were blurred and their voices changed.
“Mr. Adelstein wrote to people on the National Geographic team and informed them that he had been threatened and that some of the interviews taken in his absence were not safe. Mr. Adelstein, who had no knowledge of the interviews with currently active Yakuza that took place during his absence, was extremely shocked and dismayed that National Geographic Television would act in such reckless disregard of his personal safety, and the safety of others – including National Geographic Japan – in this matter,” he says.
When the Yakuza boss learned that his interview had been taped, Adelstein says, a Yakuza member called him and told him, “If that airs, he’s going to be canned and he’ll be pissed. The cops will come down on us and everyone will pissed at you. It’s a small world amongst the Yakuza. Everyone knows you’re working on this project. This is serious trouble. We should talk face to face.”
He says National Geographic “reluctantly” agreed to let him review a near-final cut of the program, which still contained the interviews that he and the Yakuza members had asked to be removed.
He says he also learned that the company had changed the concept of the documentary to a “docudrama entitled ‘Gangland Tokyo'” that “contains exaggerated, factually inaccurate soap opera style dramatizations of Yakuza crime and violence.”
Adelstein says National Geographic believes this approach would reduce the risk of violence against him.
“In fact, far from diminishing the risk to Mr. Adelstein and his sources, the change in the program from a documentary to a docudrama has likely increased the risk of physical violence or death to Mr. Adelstein and others,” the complaint states.
He says National Geographic plans to broadcast Gangland Tokyo around May 10.
He wants an injunction stopping it from being broadcast in the United States and Japan.
He also wants 72 hours to review the final cut of the program to provide National Geographic with feedback, and compensatory and punitive damages for breach of contract, interference, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
Adelstein is represented by James Hopenfeld with Ditthavong Mori, of Alexandria, Va.
He filed a notice through his attorney to voluntarily dismiss the lawsuit with prejudice on Wednesday, May 4.
National Geographic Television said the reporter made the right choice.
“National Geographic Television (NGT) stands behind its program on the Yakuza,” spokeswoman Ellen Stanley said in a statement. “We have only one standard for our documentary productions and that is factually accurate programs. For the production of this program, NGT has acted according to the highest ethical and journalistic standards.”