The victims’ right to privacy was pitted against the public’s right to know as the media pressed for the names of the Algerian hostage crisis victims to be disclosed while the government and JGC Corp. remained tight-lipped, but Tokyo finally caved Friday, revealing the identities of the firm’s 10 slain employees.
The government, however, was trumped by many mainstream media outlets that had already reported the names of those killed — against the express wishes of the victims’ families — after Islamist militants stormed a gas complex in a remote part of Algeria on Jan. 16.
During a news conference Friday, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga explained that the government had decided to release the names because the bodies of the victims were shipped back to Haneda airport in Tokyo earlier in the day. It was not an easy decision to make, he added.
“Until now, we have been cooperating with JGC in prioritizing the feelings of (the victims’ kin), but the bodies have returned to Japan and the families will be able to see them. Given this timing, the government has decided that disclosing the names was appropriate and will take responsibility for” revealing their identities, Suga said.
But Suga refused to release any further information, including the ages, places of residence, job titles or even details of how the 10 victims were found. The names of the seven Japanese survivors of the hostage crisis have also been withheld in consideration of the emotional trauma they experienced.
Other countries and companies have been far quicker to respond. They include the United States, which issued a statement Monday with the names of the three American hostages who were killed during the four-day ordeal, and Norwegian oil company Statoil, which disclosed the names of its five missing employees as early as last Sunday, when Algerian security forces ended the rescue operation.
Public opinion as well as experts are divided on the issue. Harsh criticism of the media for prematurely revealing the names of the Japanese victims has been posted on Internet sites including Twitter and Facebook, arguing that media organizations should leave the families in peace and that they should be ashamed of themselves for ignoring the pleas for privacy.
But others, including Sophia University professor and media law expert Yasuhiko Tajima, said it is the job of the media to demand the government disclose names and identities in situations as grave as last week’s hostage standoff, because such basic facts as the names, ages and job descriptions of those involved are all necessary when investigating the cases.
“The case itself is far from a private matter — it is a grave act of terrorism. Given its public nature, people should be provided important information, such as names,” Tajima told The Japan Times in an interview. “It is not just about the present: This case will have historical meaning and it is important to have records of it — and it is the job of the media to report on it to society.”
Tajima pointed out that while consideration toward the victims’ relatives must be made, journalists should not be faulted for revealing the names of those killed in Algeria before the government made its official announcement.
“If the media just waited for details, it would give the government or corporations excessive control over information, and that is a more dangerous situation,” Tajima said. “This isn’t about the media being simply curious.”
Lawyer Kazuyuki Azusawa, a media and human rights expert, stressed that with many Japanese companies dispatching their employees to overseas locations, including in Africa, it is important for the media to contact survivors to check, for instance, if JGC’s workers were supplied with accurate information on the potential risks of their assignment, and whether or not they were given the choice to reject it.
But Azusawa also noted that such contact must be conducted with special care.
“A company’s consideration for the safety of its employees is very important for those being sent abroad, and the public needs to know what the situation was like (for the JGC employees in Algeria) and voice their opinions to businesses and the government,” he said. “In order to do so, I believe that the names should be disclosed and the freedom of the press be secured.”
Mali intervention backed
Japan supports France’s military intervention in Mali, where government forces are battling Islamic militants controlling the country’s northern region, according to government officials.
France’s controversial move is believed to be linked with last week’s hostage crisis at a natural gas plant in Algeria, in which 10 Japanese nationals were killed along with several other foreign nationals.
In telephone talks with French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius on Thursday, Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida said he welcomes France’s “support” for Malian government forces waging a “war on terror,” noting the international community must be united in countering terrorism.
The two ministers also agreed that Tokyo and Paris should work closely over the four-day hostage crisis that ended Sunday in Algeria, in which Japanese and French nationals were among those killed by Islamist militants who attacked the remote gas complex.
On the African-led International Support Mission to Mali, Kishida expressed his hope that the multinational military initiative will begin effective activities as soon as possible, according to the officials.