The tragic death of Kenji Goto highlights a dilemma that the journalism community in Japan has long struggled with: how much of a risk reporters should take on when working in dangerous conflict zones.
Goto, who was 47, set up a one-man news agency called Independent Press in 1996. He reported from far-flung conflict zones, and was one of the few journalists from Japan who defied repeated advisories from the Foreign Ministry to stay away from Syria, where a civil war erupted in 2011.
Goto went missing in late October, after he entered Syria from Turkey, reportedly in an effort to save self-styled security contractor Haruna Yukawa, another Japanese who was purportedly being held by the Islamic State group.
Goto’s friends in the journalism community — many of whom have also covered civil wars in the Middle East and elsewhere — said he was a rare presence among the ranks of war correspondents, in that he insisted on reporting on the plight of ordinary citizens affected by war, rather than those fighting it.
New York-based film producer Taku Nishimae, who spearheaded an “I am Kenji” social media campaign in a bid to secure Goto’s release, described him as “one of a kind.”
“His chief concern was always to report on the very basics of humanity, or what is happening to ordinary citizens like us in the midst of war. Few other journalists can do it,” said Nishimae, who became close friends with Goto after the two men worked together on an NHK documentary project.
Goto’s execution, Nishimae continued, shouldn’t discourage journalists from going to conflict zones, though his death is certainly a sobering reminder of the risks involved in conflict reporting.
“Those realities are under-reported even now. If people stopped reporting on them (because of what happened to Goto), they will continue to remain in the dark,” he said.
Freelance photojournalist Naomi Toyoda, who worked with Goto in Jordan in 1996, agreed, saying that Goto’s killing means journalists will assume a more important role in mitigating any rise in prejudice against Islamic nations.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s unusually aggressive condemnation of terrorism, articulated soon after the world learned of Goto’s beheading, could blind Japanese to the fact that most nationals in those countries have nothing to do with the militant group, and could stoke misguided hostility toward them, he said.
Toyoda added that Abe’s remarks were likely uttered in part to deflect public attention from his government’s own missteps in handling the hostage crisis.
“Journalists, then, will bear even bigger responsibility from now on to report on the reality of those innocent citizens and prove to (the domestic audience here) that not all of them resemble” the extremists, Toyoda said.
In reality, however, many major news outlets in Japan have all but given up on reporting on conflicts on their own, and Goto’s death will likely add pressure not to send their own reporters to dangerous areas.
On Thursday night, as the clock ticked closer to a 24-hour deadline set by the Islamic State group to swap Goto for failed al-Qaida bomber Sajida al-Rishawi, scores of Middle East-based Japanese journalists began to gather near the Turkish border with Syria.
In response, the Foreign Ministry on Friday raised the level of alert in the border areas to an “evacuation order,” warning Japanese journalists to leave immediately because they could be targeted in kidnappings.
Furthermore, conservative Yomiuri Shimbun and Sankei Shimbun dailies also reported somewhat critically on Saturday that reporters from the rival liberal daily Asahi Shimbun had entered Syria, despite government warnings not to do so.
Toyoda, however, defended the Asahi’s decision to send reporters into Syria.
“All journalists, including those from major news organizations in Japan, should decide themselves whether or not to enter conflict zones,” he said.
Nishimae agreed: “Just because the government said no doesn’t mean that you should abandon your conviction as a journalist.”
Junpei Yasuda, another freelance war reporter who was a close friend of Goto’s, said that journalism would die if they stopped making their own judgment calls.
“Those people who say no reporting is necessary in dangerous areas are by and large of the opinion that they can let the government make decisions,” Yasuda said. “Us giving up our (freedom) to make our own decision is equal to forfeiting democracy.”
Toshi Maeda, who is also a freelance journalist and friend of Goto’s, feared that his execution could hurt journalism in this country.
“Goto had said that he had a unique advantage as a journalist from Japan,” Maeda said. “He said being a journalist from Japan gave him access to places where no journalists from the U.K. and U.S. dared to go, as Japan has long been a pacifist country and has never participated in airstrikes.
“I really hope Goto’s sincerity as a journalist and his focus on the human side of stories will inspire other journalists.”