Kenji Goto is among a rare breed of journalists who, while reporting from conflict-ridden Syria, has never regarded himself as a war reporter. Instead, he has tried to capture the voices of ordinary citizens whose fates have been irreversibly changed by war.
Goto, 47, began reporting on Syria and its people four years ago, when its civil war broke out. He went missing in mid-October in the north of the country after entering from Turkey, reportedly to look for Haruna Yukawa, the second hostage seen in the video.
In May, Goto told a newspaper his focus as a reporter is always the people suffering, rather than the war itself.
“The ‘front lines’ of my reporting are where people suffer the unbearable and yet where they are still trying to live,” Goto told the Tokyo-based newspaper Christian Today.
“I want to be compassionate to people who are in the midst of hardship. They always have a message to tell. If I manage to find an outlet for their stories in the world, that might lead to a solution. Only then my job will be considered a success.”
Toshitsugu Maeda, a journalist friend of Goto’s, said that he has “relentlessly pursued people angles” through his work, and made it his lifelong mission to follow the lives of children who bore the brunt of war.
Goto also believes that Japan’s postwar pacifism has worked in his favor, allowing him access to places no Western journalists dared to venture, Maeda said.
“He said as a Japanese he had a duty to keep going to Syria because journalists from the United States and the U.K. could not report freely there,” Maeda said. “Two or three years ago he was held captive by al-Qaida-linked forces, but he was released after explaining his intentions to the captors. He said he had the advantage of being a journalist from Japan, which, unlike the U.S. or the U.K., has never participated in air strikes.”
In a report he filed for NHK in 2012, Goto reported how the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad tortured its people. His dispatch showed how the torture hardened anger against the Syrian government and recruited people to the side of the rebels. The report also included mostly mosaicked footage of citizens tortured by government forces after taking part in a peaceful demonstrations.
As a journalist, Goto is “devoted to reporting what should be reported with a firm conviction,” said Hiroshi Tamura, pastor of the Chofu Church of the United Church of Christ in Japan. Tamura had until March 2013 been pastor of the Denenchofu Church of the United Church of Christ, which Goto attended.
He said Goto “has a strong sense of justice . . . and he has always been conscious of vulnerable people, including children.”
Tamura added that he has seen the video and is praying for Goto’s safe return.
Goto seems to have been well aware of the risks involved and took precautions to avoid trouble.
“Professionally he was usually very careful, always worked with local people who know what’s dangerous, what to avoid,” said Miki Ebara, editor-in-chief of NHK World, during a news segment profiling the journalist on Tuesday.
“But Kenji had also told me, even for him, Syria was full of danger.”