On his way to board a flight to Doha at Haneda airport in Tokyo this past Saturday night, Kosuke Tsuneoka’s passage was abruptly halted.
What derailed his plan was something he has since said he had not expected at all: his home country.
The freelance journalist’s final destination was Yemen, a country experts have described as facing the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. At immigration control, an officer told Tsuneoka that his passport had been invalidated and that he was ordered by the government to relinquish it — in effect banning him from leaving the country.
When he refused to surrender his passport, the Foreign Ministry, which handles passport issuance, informed him that it may consider reporting him to the police, he said.
“I was shocked,” Tsuneoka said in an interview with The Japan Times on Tuesday.
The departure was his second attempt to enter Yemen for the reporting trip, during which he was set to cover relief efforts by aid groups and which he had been planning for three years. When he’d tried to travel on Jan. 14, he’d been denied entry at an airport in Oman and deported.
The Passport Act states that the Japanese government may order its citizens to surrender their passports if they seek to enter a country from which they are banned. Tsuneoka said the government ordered him to forgo his passport because of his entry denial in Oman, even though his route would have passed through a different country this time.
“I protested this action as illegal,” said Tsuneoka.
A Foreign Ministry official declined to comment on the incident.
Tsuneoka, who routinely covers the Middle East, has undergone a series of ordeals during his reporting. In 2010, he was kidnapped and held hostage by a militant group for five months. He was also detained by the Kurdish authorities in Iraq after being suspected of associating with the Islamic State in 2016.
“There is a possibility that he could be arrested if he does not return his passport,” said Makoto Matsumiya, an immigration attorney based in Kobe.
The incident highlights ongoing disagreements between reporters who seek to cover war zones and the government, which observers say wishes for all citizens to avoid travel that presents the risk of them being dragged into a potentially hostile situation — with serious implications for the government.
On its travel warning scale, the Foreign Ministry classifies Yemen at level four — the most hazardous rating — which indicates that all Japanese citizens are urged to evacuate immediately and “avoid all travel regardless of purposes.”
Foreign Minister Taro Kono indicated to reporters Tuesday evening that Tsuneoka could file a petition or a lawsuit if he is dissatisfied with the decision.
“I think he would take those measure if he deems it necessary,” Kono said, adding that he has “respect” for journalists reporting in dangerous areas.
Jumpei Yasuda, who was held as a hostage by militants in Syria for more than three years before being released last October, has faced a severe backlash from critics, who blame him for putting himself in danger.
The Passport Act also states that the government is authorized to confiscate a passport if deemed necessary to protect the holder’s life and property. The law stipulates that if someone fails to surrender a passport by a specified time, they may be sentenced to up to five years in prison, have to pay a maximum fine of ¥3 million or both.
In February 2015, the Foreign Ministry ordered a Japanese freelance photographer to surrender his passport after it concluded that the photographer was highly likely to be in danger during his planned trip to Syria.
The order came after the beheading of two Japanese citizens, including freelance journalist Kenji Goto, in Syria.
The photographer filed a lawsuit, claiming the restriction infringed his constitutional rights of freedom of travel and freedom of the press. The Supreme Court dismissed the case last March.
In that case, Matsumiya explained, the photographer surrendered his passport and received a new one with restrictions banning him from visiting certain countries.
A civil war in Yemen that broke out in 2015 has pushed the country into turmoil, to the extent that in November the United Nations reported 14 million people were at risk of “imminent” and extensive famine.
Tsuneoka said he felt compelled to go to Yemen because he was alarmed by how little attention it gets from Japanese media.
“Japan is an advanced country and a member of the (Group of Seven),” he said, but the media picks up next to no news on Syria or Yemen. “I feel strongly how important it is to report on these developments through my experience as a journalist,” he added.
Staff writer Reiji Yoshida contributed to this report