Suga defends confiscating passport of Syria-bound journalist

Kyodo, JIJI, Staff Report

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga on Monday defended the government’s confiscation of a journalist’s passport as necessary to “secure the safety of” Japanese overseas.

The Foreign Ministry effectively confiscated the passport of freelance photographer Yuichi Sugimoto on Saturday to prevent him from going to Syria, where the Islamic State militant group is believed to have recently beheaded two Japanese captives.

Despite the danger, Sugimoto said Sunday that he still wants to go to Syria.

“We believe the utmost respect should be given to freedom of the press and the freedom to travel, which are guaranteed by the Constitution,” Suga told his regularly scheduled news conference. “At the same time, it is an extremely important duty for the government to secure the safety of Japanese traveling abroad and those staying overseas.”

Sugimoto said the confiscation of his passport in this situation is tantamount to violation of freedom of the press, but Suga argued that it “doesn’t apply to this case,” given the Islamic State group’s repeated threats to kill Japanese.

Asked if any Japanese citizens trying to go to Syria would be likewise deprived of their passport, Suga said the government doesn’t have any uniform criteria and that decisions would be made on a case-by-base basis.

“I will avoid reckless activities and take enough measures to protect myself,” Sugimoto, 58, said at his home in Niigata. “I want to go to Syria soon and let people know what’s happening in the country.”

The ministry said it took Saturday’s action in accordance with a provision in the passport law that allows it to confiscate a person’s passport to protect their life.

The confiscation, coming in the wake of online videos purportedly showing the killings of journalist Kenji Goto and self-styled security contractor Haruna Yukawa by Islamic State, could spur discussions about the constitutional guarantee of freedom to travel to foreign countries.

Sugimoto said he was planning to leave Japan for Istanbul on Feb. 27 and head to Syria after meeting up with a former soldier who had served as a guide for Goto.

The journalist said he did not plan to enter areas controlled by the Islamic State group, but rather intended to cover refugee camps inside Syria. He was to return to Japan on March 12.

“I’ve been taking safety measures all along. I would definitely retreat if I felt my life was in danger. It is my job to come back alive and tell (my story),” he said.

Passport confiscation “robs us of our rights and shows that (Prime Minister Shinzo) Abe’s government has turned its fangs against the public,” he said. “It is outrageous.”

Given the hostage crisis, the ministry and police had asked Sugimoto to refrain from traveling to Syria, but he remained firm in his decision to go to the war-torn country, prompting officials at the prime minister’s office to contemplate action, according to a ministry source.

According to Sugimoto, ministry officials and police officers told him in front of his home Saturday night that unless he handed over his passport, he would be arrested. He subsequently complied with the ministry’s order.

Sugimoto has experience covering conflict zones. He visited Iraq in 2003 and traveled to Syria in 2012 and 2013 in connection with his work.

  • Eagle

    It is not just about his life, it’s about how much diplomatic problems he causes to his country that can escalate.
    Alternatively, he might deposit a few hundred million dollars and can make arrangement for what should be done when he get kidnapped and make an agreement with ISIS they would not bother Japan but turn to his parents or lawyers who will pay the ransom and take him home instead of living it to Japan. But what if he get kidnapped and the the ISIS does not ask for ransom but something more that neither him nor Japan cannot afford, like dragging other countries in the mess as they did it with Jordan.

    “I’ve been taking safety measures all along. I would definitely retreat
    if I felt my life was in danger….”

    A clear indication he is lost his sense of reality. What safety measures did he take, care to let us know? Or does he think someone will warn him five minutes before the ISIS is taking him.

    This man is insane. Not because he wants to go, but because he still doesn’t understand what is going on and goes totally unprepared believing he would be able to act properly in case of need.

  • Jean-Michel Levy

    The guy has lost is mind. Refugee camps in Syria are the best place to get kidnapped. Did he also tell Kyodo about his detailed whereabouts ?
    The Ministry did pretty well. This is not about freedom of speech. This is about an uncontrolled ego.

  • Flying fish

    I basically agree with Eagle, but obviously no ransom must be paid to ISIS in case of his capture or anybody’s. It doesn’t matter who pays it. He should use his common sense (if any) and refrain from going to the areas that are defined as dangerous by the Government. He should use skills and energy to do something more meaningful and useful to the society or the world.

    I am so disappointed to hear the following comment:
    Passport confiscation “robs us of our rights and shows that (Prime Minister Shinzo) Abe’s government has turned its fangs against the public,” he said. “It is outrageous.”

    I believe a majority of Japanese exhibits a more responsible manner, but there are still some who “demand” their “right” but not understand/perform their duties.

  • Firas Kraïem

    The comments are appalling, and the terrorists have already won. (He who gives up freedom, etc.)

  • Albert Holk

    I am torn on this particular topic. I do not believe Sugimoto-san to be insane. Naive perhaps, but not insane.

    If you do label him as insane, then the same must be said about any soldier who signs up up to fight a war for “freedom” halfway across the world, any doctor who volunteers in a hot zone, any investigative reporter who steps outside their little comfy office. No, naive maybe, but not insane.

    If anything, he is bringing attention to a problem that most first-world citizens would rather ignore. We hear about refugees and those displaced by war, but do we “understand” what those refugees are going through? Do we understand what can be done to help them and why we should try? Probably not. People like Goto and Sugimoto try to bridge that gap and humanize the conflicts. Is it egotisical for them to think they can be that bridge? Yes, absolutely. But anyone who believes they can succeed where others fail are equally egotisical (and perhaps a bit naive).

  • KenjiAd

    While the action by the Japanese government may appear reasonable on the surface, such power could very easily abused. Basically, you are allowing the government to decide which country a journalist (or aid worker for that matter) can go. Do we trust the Japanese government to make that decision for us? I’m not sure about that.

    Is he idiot? I think so. But Japan is a free country and he has a right to be idiot, as long as he is not endangering anyone else but himself.

    A better approach, I think, is to make the journalist sign a paper stating that he would be solely responsible for whatever might happen in the country he wants to go. If he wants to go dive in the shark-infested sea to take pictures, go ahead but don’t ask the government to save him.

    Also, publishers can refuse to pay money to free-lancers who go to dangerous places.

  • Shiki Byakko

    Is that even legal?
    They were going to arrest him? Under what grounds?
    He should not handed over his passport. He should just run for it, going to Korea or something like that, and then do whatever he want’s from there.

    This kind of action is in fact against, not only the Japanese Constitution, but also the Declaration of Human Rights.

  • Tuck

    Don’t misunderstand! He is NOT a journalist nor professional cameraman. He is a staff of B&B located in Niigata. He has NO achievement as a journalist before. He just likes to be the center of attention.

  • Firas Kraïem

    “but Suga argued that it ‘doesn’t apply to this case,'”

    Another instance of Prof. Jones’s “kittens are cute” principle, it seems.

  • Toolonggone

    It’s definitely not a desirable measurement to impose legal sanction. Restricting the rights of citizen in non-criminal situation is, in general, unjustifiable. However, in this case, people should be well informed about the danger of particular areas–regarding that the country became unstable since the beginning of 2011, bordering with Iraq which is under an increasing threat of militant insurgency after US troops left in 2009 (…so anything could happen). Most hostages are those who got captured after reported missing while traveling in the last three to four years, while two slained Japanese flew out there just recently at their own risk.

    They could have made a different choice. In all, passport confiscation is last resort. It should not become state’s abusive practice. There’s an apparent problem with national government to communicate information to the general public. Shifting all the blame on hostages/victims does not prevent similar tragedy in the future.