TOKYO (Reuters) - Dolphin activist Ric O'Barry urged Japanese theatres on Tuesday to screen Oscar-winning documentary "The Cove," despite threats from groups who see its footage of dolphins being slaughtered as an affront to traditional culture.
O'Barry, a former dolphin trainer who is in Japan to promote the film, told Reuters Television that the cancellations were an "assault on democracy."
"This is not North Korea. It's not China and it's not Cuba. It's a democratic society. There's a very small minority of radicals who are going to theater owners and threatening them. They don't want people to see this film," O'Barry said.
The documentary, which shows dolphins being herded into a cove and slaughtered, has met with fierce resistance from some groups in Japan. Fears that protests might inconvenience movie-goers have prompted cancellations at two cinemas in Tokyo and one in Osaka, according to Unplugged, the Japan distributor.
Unplugged is still in negotiations to show the movie at several venues around the country when it is released on June 26, said a spokeswoman for the company, who asked not to be named.
Earlier this month, a group of about 60 Japanese journalists and film makers released a statement urging "open discussion" of the film.
Directed by former National Geographic photographer Louie Psihoyos, the documentary follows a group of eco-activists who struggle with Japanese police and fishermen to gain access to a secluded cove in Taiji, southern Japan, where dolphins are hunted.
While the documentary depicts some confrontation between locals and activists, O'Barry tried to distance himself from environmental groups that are viewed as using extreme methods.
"I haven't really given it any thought. I'm focused on trying to stop the sale of tainted dolphin meat," he said, referring to concerns the meat has excessively high mercury content.
"The media tends to try to put everybody who likes dolphins and whales in the same bag. If you like dolphins and whales, you must be Sea Shepherd or you must be Greenpeace and it's something that actually I'm not," O'Barry explained.
The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society attracted attention in March when anti-whaling activist Pete Bethune, a member of the hardline group, was arrested in Japan after boarding a whaling vessel in the Antarctic. He is currently on trial.
O'Barry, a former dolphin trainer from the 1960s television series "Flipper" has appeared on various talk shows urging an end to commercial displays and hunting of dolphins.
Additional reporting by Chris Meyers; Editing by Linda Sieg