National

Syria-bound photographer fears passport confiscation sets dangerous precedent

by Kazuaki Nagata

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.