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.