Gov’t holds off on criticism of journalist freed in Syria


The Japanese government and ruling parties appear to be holding off on criticism of a freelance journalist who returned to Tokyo on Thursday after spending 40 months in captivity in war-torn Syria, in stark contrast with similar incidents in the past.

When citizens, particularly journalists, have been taken captive in conflict zones in the past, criticism that they failed to take "personal responsibility" for their actions has been a standard ruling party talking point.

The different stance the government and the ruling bloc have taken in the wake of the release of Jumpei Yasuda has fueled speculation that they want to take advantage of the 44-year-old journalist's situation to show a softer side and increase public support ahead of the House of Councillors election and other elections next year, observers say.

The administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe apparently thinks it preferable to celebrate Yasuda's release rather than attacking him for putting himself in danger by entering a war zone, allowing Abe to tout the successful, if confidential, release negotiations.

In 2004, in the midst of the Iraq war, a terrorist organization kidnapped three Japanese nationals and demanded the withdrawal of the nation's Self-Defense Forces from Iraq and the end of their humanitarian mission.

Around the same time, Yasuda was involved in his first hostage situation when he was taken captive by a local Iraqi terrorist group before later being released.

There is a strong view that in order to deflect domestic criticism, the Japanese government at the time blamed the victims for not taking responsibility for their actions.

"Too much reckless behavior causes trouble for others," said Abe, who was then secretary general of the Liberal Democratic Party. "We hope that everyone adheres to our evacuation advisory," he said.

"(Yasuda's release this time) is the result of the International Counter-Terrorism Intelligence Collection Unit, under the directive of the prime minister's office, working with relevant countries," crowed Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga during a press conference on Wednesday.

Since Yasuda's disappearance in Syria in June 2015, people in the Foreign Ministry and prime minister's office, have questioned behind the scenes how he could repeat such a mistake.

However, this time, Yasuda's successful release has not so far brought with it commentary about his risky behavior.

Despite the Cabinet reshuffle on Oct 2, public support for the Abe administration has not made a notable recovery.

"It is unusual to publicize the contribution of the unit, which is supposed to work clandestinely," said a government source.

"Local elections and an upper house election will be held next year. The administration may be aiming to bolster itself by taking 'a mature posture' toward Mr Yasuda, who has been a critic of the Abe government. They also want to raise support by portraying themselves as tough in times of crisis," the source said.

Yasuda attended meetings across Japan after freelance journalist Kenji Goto and another Japanese were captured and killed by Islamic State in Syria in January 2015, saying the role journalists play in reporting from conflict zones is significant.

"Japan's international aid will be untenable unless the situation of people oppressed by dictatorships is reported," he said.

Takeharu Watai, a 47-year-old freelance journalist who covers conflicts in the Middle East, echoes Yasuda's sentiments.

He stresses that a journalist's role is to record and disclose information about victims of wartime violence, representing their plight to the outside world.

"Someone needs to be courageous like Mr Yasuda and record what happens in war," he stressed.


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