Syria-bound photographer fears passport confiscation sets dangerous precedent


Staff Writer

A freelance photographer who was prevented from going to Syria when the Foreign Ministry confiscated his passport in the wake of the Islamic State hostage crisis this month expressed concern Thursday his case will set a precedent that will undermine freedom of the press in Japan.

“I am extremely surprised and shocked to suddenly face this confiscation of my passport. Losing my passport means losing my job as a freelance photographer. This means my life has been denied,” said Niigata-based photographer Yuichi Sugimoto, 58.

Sugimoto, who has covered strife-riddled countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Palestinian Territories, said he fears he won’t be the only journalist affected by government intervention.

“While I want my passport back, I am also concerned that my case will become a bad precedent and the government might order more members of the press to surrender their passports,” he told reporters at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan.

Sugimoto said he was told that his passport will be confiscated indefinitely, but he plans to file a lawsuit to challenge the ministry’s order.

“This may be my personal matter, but it is actually a matter for many of my fellow journalists and photographers. It will be unacceptable if they lose their jobs,” he said.

Sugimoto’s ordeal began when, in an interview with a local newspaper earlier this month, he said he planned to make a trip to Syria soon.

After the newspaper published details of his schedule, Sugimoto was contacted by a ministry official on Feb. 2 or Feb. 3, who tried to dissuade him from going to Syria for his own safety.

After Sugimoto insisted on going, the ministry sent more officials to his home on Feb. 7 and told him to surrender his passport or face arrest. He decided to give up the passport.

Due to the execution of two Japanese, self-styled security contractor Haruna Yukawa and freelance journalist Kenji Goto, by the Islamic State group, the Japanese government is apparently desperate to prevent another hostage crisis.

The Japanese government had already issued an evacuation order for Syria in 2011, but preventing private citizens from going overseas breaks the Constitution by violating their right to travel.

Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroshige Seko reportedly said the government had tried to stop Goto from going to Syria three times, but did not order him to surrender his passport.

Sugimoto stressed he was did not plan to go to areas controlled by Islamic State and had taken precautions.

“I have 20 years of experience, so I’d decided that I wouldn’t go too far,” he said.

Sugimoto said he was planning to visit Kobani in the north, near the border with Turkey, because it’s not under the control of the Islamic State group, adding that press tours have been held in the city under the protection of Kurdish fighters.

  • Tim Johnston

    If, Mr. Yuichi Sugimoto would like to travel anywhere, it would be his right to do so!

    A 58 year old man is free to make his own choices in life and this is clearly a breach of his basic human rights (In which Japan is Notorious)

    His constitutionally protected freedom of the press and the freedom to travel have been violated by the Foreign Ministry.

    • Chris Carino

      Yeah, put putting the government in a very precarious situation where the current constitution is barred from conducting a rescue operation in hostile foreign country. I guess you weren’t paying attention to the events relating to the two Japanese hostages. If these so-called “freelance” photographers and journalists wishes to go, they should sign a waiver that the Japanese government will not be responsible for their safety.

      It has nothing to do with restricting his “freedom of the press”, it has something to do in keeping his head attach to his body.

      • John Rogers

        Well, it’s too bad that we even have to contemplate “signing a waiver.” It’s a big dilemma. If someone is perched atop the Golden Gate Bridge threatening to jump what should be your civic duty?

        Well, that was a trick question, because automatically you have to accept that anyone about to jump from the Golden Gate Bridge is mentally ill.

        So is anyone threatening to go to Syria mentally ill? I would say a definite “Yes” and demand not only that they sign a waiver, but also post a bond covering the transport and burial of them, which should be at least a million yen. Then: let them do whatever the hell they want. It’s no longer the taxpayers’ burden and they can go bathe in gasoline to their heart’s content.

  • Japan is notorious for breaching human rights? Wow! I have lived here for years and cannot name one time where I have had a basic human right breached. Also, I agree with sotpping Sugimoto since his almost inevitable subsequent capture and beheading would turn into another international fiasco.

    • johnniewhite

      Yes, that’s common sense, and almost everyone in the world would see it that way. The only people who think differently, plenty in this very unusual cyber space, are either very silly or simply dislike Japan so much that every sensible thing the Japanese government says or do becomes the target of bashing.

      • Hakime Seddik

        Non sense. Reporters were allowed a few hours in Kobani after the city was taken back from the IS, they were from Europe, US, etc. This Japanese photographers wanted also to go there and unless you consider that no information should be provided because of the fear of some terrorists, he has the right to do so. But in fact Japan’s government decision to prevent him to go to an area again where other journalists have gone, just show how willing it is to prevent the information to reach Japanese citizen.

      • John Rogers

        Double nonsense! I’m very sorry but your 英語はちょっと分かりにくかった。この人は自殺したいってよく見える。じゃああ、ほんだら、どうぞう、自殺してください。なんですが、静かにして。お前のワンワンを聞きたくない。

      • Hakime Seddik

        I am sorry that your English level is miserable or that you don’t have the intellectual capacity to understand it, but what I wrote is perfectly understandable to anyone who can speak English.

        And judging from what you wrote in your poor Japanese, not only it makes little sense (it looks like it was written by a school kid) but also it shows how unable your are to sustain an adult discussion.

      • If you’re unhappy with Japan human rights record, you would be miserable in the US or UK. What about China? Then just leave or stay away for Japan and things Japanese. You sound like a whiny spoiled kid… kind of Japanese, actually.

      • Chris Carino

        So you’re saying the Japanese government is overreacting in light of the fact that two of their citizens were murdered by ISIS in Syria? The fact one of them were sold to the Islamists by his guide?


      • Hakine is babbling… let him go.

      • Chris Carino

        A lot of journalists/field reporters fail to follow safety protocol and become targets themselves… In the past 4 years, how many journalists were harrassed, kidnapped, maimed, killed or injured trying to cover news in hostile territories? A lot of them became headlines themselves…

        Common sense is seriously lacking these days….

    • Hakime Seddik

      Yes it is notorious for breaching human rights as you can find out by reading reports from Amnesty International. Just google it, unless you just want to keep your head stuck in your bottom.

      • PsyVet1

        I never feel my human rights breached in Japan but I do not test limits either. I believe that some are trying to impose western ideals on Japan. I like having things set and predictable. Not every culture needs to be like others.

  • KenjiAd

    Once you allow the government to decide which country/area a journalist (or an aid worker for that matter) can go, that kind of governmental power could get abused. In effect, it’s a power the government can use to restrict the information that a journalist can collect and publish.

    All Mr Sugimoto has to do is to sign a piece of paper saying he would be solely responsible for whatever might happen to him. After that, he can go to anywhere, whether it’s going to Syria or skin-diving to the shark-infested sea.

  • Tim Johnston

    He is a grown man. He can decide where he would like to go and when he would like to go. Don’t let any Government control your freedom of choice!
    and the freedom to choose how you would like to lead your life.

    • Chris Carino

      Sure, and then comes crying to the Japanese government for not “doing enough” to guarantee their safety from situations like kidnapping, becoming a hostage and beheading…

      It has nothing to do with the Japanese government quashing the journalists’ freedom of information… As I said before, under the current interpretation of the Japanese constitution, the SDF is forbidden to use force overseas in any rescue attempt on Japanese citizen in duress…. They can evacuate their citizens but the actual legwork will be done by someone else… They are allowed to use force when fired upon… other than that, there is not a thing they can do….

      It’s easier said than done since you are looking at a Western point of view , but if you actually grasp the concept of how limited the Japanese government can react to this type of situation due to the restrictions by the current constitution… They are handcuffed to do anything at this point until the language in the Article IX revised….

      If the Japanese journalists still insisting of going to hostile areas, then they have to sign a waiver absolving the Japanese government from any responsibility and liability.

      It has to come that way.

  • Tim Johnston

    The Matrix

  • johnniewhite

    Japanese people, including the government, know that the chance of him being kidnapped and executed by ISIS is quite high, and that if that comes true, the government will get the blame ultimately. No matter what Japanese government does, the Japan haters will sing and dance happily to blame the Japanese government. There are several such commentators here already!

  • John Rogers

    Please, obey Darwin and let him go. Just promise that when he is beheaded, the story will be buried at the bottom of page XXVII so that he receives no publicity for his crime: that of being a clown.

  • Eagle

    “Losing my passport means losing my job as a freelance photographer. This means my life has been denied,..”

    Goto and Yukawa also lost their jobs, together with their lives. The same can happen to you. And you’re not gonna lose your job until you can save your life

    BTW. as of being a hero, I do not want to create a stir here on this board by calling some events and some notorious places on their name, but there are many other places in the world where you could go to take pictures without ever risking your life that would be much more useful and even determining to the future of humankind to get information about them and to see them with our own eyes.

    You know the places I am talking about??? If not, don’t even bother to be a photographer.

  • Electra CV

    Saying aid workers and journalists put the government in a difficult position by getting abducted and murdered is victim blaming in all its glory. These people are willing to put their lives on the line to keep us informed and the government is treating them like spoiled children who stole dad’s credit card to go party with their friends.

    • Eagle

      There is a desperate efforts by the elite, arms traders, power groups and other psychopaths to start WW3 or at least to create as many wars they can, by supplying and financing the fighting enemies and countries on both side.

      This project involves provocative actions in order to humiliate and drag targeted countries into a war, or at least force them to finance anti terrorist efforts with huge amount of money, which money eventually finds its way to the pocket of the arms traders who will widen the war and the arms trade further on.

      One perfect tool for this is the kidnapping and killing of civilians of any countries especially those who think they can afford going into the mess.

      No one wants Japan to be dragged into that villainous game and the J. government doesn’t give a damn about the life of a photographer, rather trying to protect the interest of Japan. They do not treat him as a spoiled child, but as a potential risk factor to Japan.

      The man should be able to understand that this is not his private game ’cause he is just dragging other people or even whole Japan into a terrible mess and that by going to such places in the present situation he is just delivering a “catch me if you can” challenge to the terrorist, which they will surely take.

      He cannot afford being so selfish in such a sensitive situation.

    • Chris Carino

      So two murdered Japanese isn’t enough for the Japanese government to warrant travel restrictions to countries mired in a conflict where safety are not guaranteed?

      Nobody needs another dead journalist to realize the dangerous game they are trying to play.

  • J.P. Bunny

    Let the guy go. The government has no business keeping a grown man from traveling to dangerous place, especially if said person has been fully warned. If a toddler gets bitten after telling it not to pet the tiger, you rush it to the hospital as it doesn’t know any better. The same situation with an adult: you let the tiger finish the adult off as he was warned and knew better.