National

Journalists criticize Abe's response to hostage crisis

by Tomoko Otake and Eric Johnston

Staff Writers

As the hostage drama continues over two Japanese held by the Islamic State group, journalists versed in Middle Eastern affairs are questioning how the Abe administration is handling the crisis.

The fate of the two men — freelance journalist Kenji Goto, 47, and Haruna Yukawa, 42 — hangs in the balance, now that the 72-hour deadline the Japanese government presumes was 2:50 p.m. Friday has passed.

The Islamic State militants released a video on the Internet midday Tuesday showing the two Japanese in orange jump suits, kneeling and being threatened by a masked, knife-wielding man. The man warned, in English with a British accent, that the two would be killed unless Tokyo paid a $200 million ransom within 72 hours.

The crisis erupted while Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was on a six-day tour of the Middle East. At a hastily arranged news conference Tuesday evening, Abe said he would prioritize saving the lives of the hostages but vowed at the same time never to “give in” to terrorism.

The venue for the news conference, however, could not have been worse, a journalist involved in Mideast affairs said.

“The Abe administration’s handling of the situation has been very bad,” Fumikazu Nishitani, a Japanese freelance journalist who is involved with a nongovernmental organization helping Iraqi children, said Friday.

“First of all, Abe did his press conference after the video appeared in Israel, which created a negative image in the Islamic world.”

Nishitani also said Abe turned to the wrong country for help. The government decided to set up a liaison office in Jordan, sending State Minister for Foreign Affairs Yasuhide Nakayama to Amman to head up a response effort.

“The Japanese government should not be relying heavily on Jordan, which can’t do anything,” he said. “Turkey is the key, so they should have set up a liaison office in Turkey right away.”

Journalist Toshi Maeda, a friend of Goto’s who has been monitoring the crisis, echoed Nishitani’s view, criticizing Abe’s Thursday night telephone conference with British Prime Minister David Cameron.

“The government should turn to Turkey instead of the U.K. and the United States, if it’s really serious about negotiating for the release of the men,” he said.

Turkey has succeeded in freeing its hostages in the past. The United States and Britain, meanwhile, maintain a zero-concessions policy. Some European countries and Japan are believed to have paid to free their citizens, though in many cases the negotiations and ransom amounts are never publicly divulged.

Even in the early stages of the crisis, Japanese officials made comments that did little to help the situation, if not ruin it completely.

Masahiko Komura, vice president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, told reporters Wednesday morning that the government will not pay, though the comment has not been backed by other officials.

Top officials, including Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, have not gone so far as to reject payment.

Maeda said he is keeping his fingers crossed.

“It’s usually the case that the details of negotiations are withheld, especially good news,” he said. “I’m hoping for a complete turnaround of the events for the better.”

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