The shocking emergence of a video showing missing reporter Jumpei Yasuda highlights the government’s reluctance to address the abduction, despite being long aware of the journalist’s plight.
On Thursday, Nils Bildt, head of the security consultancy CTSS Japan, criticized the Japanese government for its reluctance to get involved, saying the recent development could have been avoided. He said his company was the first to receive information about Yasuda’s disappearance last July.
Bildt said Yasuda’s case has lacked public exposure, and that without it “the government has been able to simply excuse themselves by not doing anything.”
“My personal opinion is that the only thing that will help Mr. Yasuda is sustained media attention and sustained questioning of the government as to what they’re doing and why they’re not doing anything.”
Following a statement by press advocacy group Reporters Without Borders in December, which drew a swift reaction from Tokyo, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga admitted the government was aware of the kidnapping claims but declined to confirm them.
When asked about the government’s response to Yasuda’s case, a high-ranking official at the Foreign Ministry did not deny or confirm that an exchange of information took place with CTSS. But the official said all resources available were being used to protect the lives of Japanese, including Yasuda.
CTSS opened an investigation sometime in the summer after learning of Yasuda’s disappearance in June from a local informant. The Middle East-based informant, according to Bildt, claimed it was the second time he had helped the journalist enter Syria and is believed to be one of the last people to see him. The two met in Antakya in southern Turkey on June 11.
According to CTSS, Yasuda was seeking help to cross the border to reach liberated territory in the northwestern Syrian province of Latakia. He wanted to interview the head of Syrian rebel group Ahrar al-Sham. While in Antakya, Yasuda was reporting on Syrian refugees in Turkey.
CTSS was also informed that Yasuda failed to obtain an entry pass from Turkish authorities or a covenant of security from a group controlling the area he wanted to visit in Syria due to the war there, but decided to proceed anyway within a few days of meeting with the CTSS informant.
Bildt said, based on tips from the informant, that Yasuda probably entered Syria through the village of Kherbit al-Joz and was kidnapped just outside of Idlib in northwestern Syria, about 4 km southwest of the Syrian-Turkish border, the area controlled by Jabhat al-Nusra, soon after entering the country. Often translated as Nusra Front, the al-Qaida-linked militant group has been known to fight on behalf of the Syrian opposition.
Soon afterward CTSS contacted the Japanese Foreign Ministry and provided the details of its investigation.
According to CTSS’s sources, since his abduction, Yasuda has been held captive in or near Idlib by militants under the control of, or associated with, Nusra Front, Bildt said.
Bildt is certain the actions taken by the kidnapping group fit the profile of Nusra.
He explained that tactics such as the kidnapping of Westerners are not commonly used by, for instance, the Syrian National Coalition, a coalition of local revolutionary and opposition groups.
“(The) timing (of the video’s release) I think is related to al-Nusra wanting to make a deal urgently, but there is lots more to it than that,” Bildt said, adding that it also shows the rebel group’s naivete in believing “they could control the Japanese government.”
Bildt said he had initially been asked by the government to continue the investigation, but struggled to proceed in the absence of a continued official support from the Foreign Ministry after initial reports were presented.
Bildt has said his company had proof Yasuda is alive. On Dec. 31, CTSS received a handwritten message from the journalist, which was soon passed on to Foreign Ministry officials.
Bildt was concerned that without such support, the war correspondent would eventually be sold or share the fate of fellow reporter Kenji Goto, who was murdered in Syria by Islamic State group militants in early 2015.
Following the beheading of Goto, Bildt, whose company has worked for the Japanese government, said the murder could perhaps have been avoided if Tokyo had established or continued contact with the militants earlier and not undermined private negotiations undertaken by parties investigating the case.
In Yasuda’s case, CTSS believes the fact that such contact has already been established for many months is beneficial. In the initial talks involving help from the informant, the group demanded ransom money but the talks were put on hold due to intensifying clashes in the area.
He added, however, that he was aware of regular contact and ongoing negotiations with the kidnapping group with the involvement of another party.
“The only thing jeopardizing Yasuda’s life is not doing anything because nothing’s going to happen,” and eventually he will be sold or killed, Bildt said.