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Nissan's Ghosn crisis

Ghosn bets on PR offensive to shift narrative from jail

Back-to-back interviews seek to capitalize on criticism of Japan's justice system

Former Nissan chairman Carlos Ghosn made two consecutive interviews as he began his media campaign against the Japanese prosecutors.   © Getty Images

TOKYO -- Carlos Ghosn, who has gone from heading the world's biggest auto alliance to awaiting trial in Japan, has mounted a full-fledged offensive against the prosecutors' case through a media campaign designed to influence public opinion.

The 64-year-old former Nissan Motor chairman did two consecutive interviews in the past week -- one with Nikkei and the other with French daily Les Echos and AFP. These were his first media appearances since his initial Nov. 19 arrest.

Ghosn, who has been denied bail twice, had professed his innocence earlier in a rare court hearing on his prolonged detention, but has now turned to the media to tell his side of the story in a bid to shift the narrative by appealing to the general public outside the Japanese judicial system.

"Ghosn has nothing to lose," said Stephen Givens, a Tokyo-based corporate lawyer. "The Japanese prosecutor probably doesn't like it, but the prosecutor is already committed to prosecute, so that trigger has already been pulled."

Nancy Snow, a professor of public diplomacy at the Kyoto University of Foreign Studies, says Ghosn "recognizes that this is an international information war."

"He knows that if he can get out his message in the court of international public opinion, he may be able to apply pressure on the Japanese and global public opinion to see his case as one of lack of due process before the law," Snow said.

In the interview with Les Echos and AFP, Ghosn criticized Japanese prosecutors, saying "they deny every opportunity for me to defend myself. I'm talking about fairness."

"Ghosn wants to be seen as a sympathetic human being, not an overpaid jet-setting international executive with luxury homes all over the world"

Nancy Snow,  Kyoto University of Foreign Studies professor

Ghosn is fighting on his own, having stepped down on Jan. 24 as chairman and chief executive of Renault, which had initially seemed reluctant to dismiss him. He had already been relieved of his chairmanships at the French automaker's Japanese partners Nissan and Mitsubishi Motors.

In Japan, more than 99% of criminal indictments result in a conviction. Ghosn has been charged with understating his pay at Nissan by more than $80 million, directing Nissan money to an acquaintance, and temporarily transferring personal investment losses to the automaker.

Ghosn denies these allegations, telling Nikkei they were the result of "plot and treason" by Nissan executives opposed to his plan for a deeper integration of the three automakers. Nissan disputes this claim, saying Ghosn's situation is the result of his alleged misconduct.

Ghosn's case has already brought international attention to Japan's criminal justice system.

Brad Adams, Asia director for Human Rights Watch, has launched a public criticism of such practices as holding suspects in prolonged detention and questioning them without lawyers present.

French President Emmanuel Macron also voiced his concern about Ghosn's "very long" detention in January, describing the conditions as "harsh." He said he had conveyed his concerns to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on several occasions.

The Japan Federation of Bar Associations says it does not comment on individual cases, but adds that it has urged the government to enshrine in law the right to have legal counsel during interrogations.

These developments suggest Ghosn's attempt to influence public opinion and and the Japanese government may find a receptive audience.

"I think international pressure on the Japanese government and public opinion in general will filter through to the court where his case is heard," Givens said. "I think he wants vindication in court." 

Yasuyuki Takai, a former prosecutor and an attorney in Tokyo, puts the chances of a guilty verdict for Ghosn at around 60%.

Not every one looks favorably on Ghosn's PR campaign. Les Echos, for instance, said in an editorial published on Thursday that "by bringing up once again the conspiracy theory, Carlos Ghosn risks worsening the mistrust between Renault and Nissan at a crucial moment."

Ghosn's prospects of being granted bail remain uncertain, and prosecutors are expected to press their case against him hard.

But "Ghosn wants to be seen as a sympathetic human being, not an overpaid jet-setting international executive with luxury homes all over the world," Snow said. "This is all about image and perception and whose side will win in the mind wars."

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