A day after a journalists’ lobby reported that Japanese freelancer Jumpei Yasuda is being held for ransom in Syria, the government found itself again scrambling to determine his whereabouts.
Some Japanese journalists criticized the lobby, France-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF), for making the disclosure, saying it would put the journalist at greater risk.
On Wednesday, RSF announced that Yasuda’s captors have “started a countdown for the payment of a ransom, failing which they are threatening to execute him or sell him to another terrorist group.”
The group said Yasuda was kidnapped in Syrian territory controlled by the Al-Nusra Front a few hours after crossing the border in early July, and that the Sunni Islamist militia group continues to hold him.
It urged the Japanese government to take immediate action to save his life.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga on Thursday stopped short of confirming RSF’s claims.
“Considering the nature of the situation, we would like to refrain from commenting on details,” Suga told reporters. “We are doing our utmost to respond, trying to gather information from different sources.”
A second high-ranking government official who wished to remain anonymous said he was puzzled by why the news is emerging at this moment. The official said the information was confusing and hard to confirm.
RSF provided no details as to why it believes a ransom is being demanded or why his captors set a deadline.
Meanwhile, several Japanese journalists called RSF’s statement unreliable and based on rumors. They said to make such assertions at this time may worsen Yasuda’s situation.
“As far as I know, there was no ransom demand; I really doubt the credibility of the information spread by RSF,” fellow freelance journalist Kosuke Tsuneoka, 46, wrote on Twitter.
Tsuneoka, a close friend of Yasuda, said RSF might end up bearing some of the responsibility for Yasuda’s fate through its actions Wednesday.
He added that he has been in contact with RSF and learned that neither Yasuda’s family nor the government has received a ransom demand. Instead, he said, the demand was delivered to Swedish citizen Nils Bildt, head of CTSS Japan Ltd., a cybersecurity consultancy specializing in private and corporate intelligence.
Tsuneoka said the message is therefore unreliable, as Bildt is not related to Yasuda’s family and has made no contact with them.
Neither Tsuneoka nor Bildt were available for comment when contacted by The Japan Times.
“Someone might want to benefit from spreading such rumors,” said Hitoshi Takase, another journalist and close friend.
In a blog post Wednesday, Takase praised Yasuda’s commitment to reporting and the quality of his work, but worried about his situation.
“It’s been exactly six months since he was captured,” he noted.
Following the release of the Islamic State group video of journalist Kenji Goto’s execution in February, Yasuda told The Japan Times that his friend’s death would not prevent him from reporting. He wanted to explore the factors behind his murder.
Yasuda also criticized the government’s response to the hostage crisis. He called Japan a “cowardly nation” on Twitter and complained about the government’s passport confiscation and other efforts to deter journalists from traveling to conflict zones at a time when other nations had imposed no such pressure.