TOKYO (Reuters) - The president of Japan's leading liberal newspaper pledged to fundamentally transform the paper for the better after its coverage of women forced into sex work during the Second World War was sharply criticized in a report.
The Asahi Shimbun took years to withdraw incorrect articles on "comfort women", as those forced to work in Japanese wartime military brothels are known, and has since faced a barrage of criticism from Japanese conservatives and become the target of harassment and threats of attack.
A report from a panel of academics and industry specialists set up by the daily said the paper's handling of the issue was a "betrayal of readers' trust."
However, it added the threats the Asahi now faced could endanger Japan's democracy.
The newspaper in August retracted articles published in the 1980s and 1990s based on a Japanese man's account - later found to be false - that described women on the Korean island of Jeju being forcibly recruited to work in the brothels. The issues surrounding 'comfort women' remain a flashpoint in Japan's ties with South Korea.
The report said the Asahi failed to take steps to verify the Japanese man's account even after the validity of his comment came into question.
The Asahi holds a unique place among Japan's leading newspapers with its liberal stance, as opposed to the moderate Mainichi and the conservative Yomiuri and Sankei, both of which often echo positions of the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
"Let me offer my deepest apology for causing everyone trouble and anxiety regarding our comfort women coverage," Asahi President Masataka Watanabe said as he received the report from a panel member.
"I promise that we will carry out reforms to rebuild the Asahi Shimbun from the ground up."
The report labeled the paper's failure to correct or withdraw the articles in question when it carried a series of features on the issue in March 1997 as a "critical mistake".
However, it also said that the threats encountered by the paper since then brought dangers.
"We have come to understand anew Asahi employees and its sales outlets are in a very difficult position as the subjects of malicious threats and harassments," the report said.
"We would like to point out the risk that these contemptible behaviors could wreck Japan's democracy."
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has said the Asahi's erroneous articles on comfort women smeared Japan's image in the eyes of people overseas, but the report concluded that the Asahi's reports had only limited impact on international society.
(Reporting by Kiyoshi Takenaka; Editing by Toby Chopra)