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Reporting on and Covering the “Islamic State”
Who decides if journalists should report from the ground?

Akihiro Nonaka
Professor, Faculty of Political Science and Economics, Waseda University

Recording what happens on battlefields is essential to war reporting. What is actually occurring on the battlefield? Reports based on this reality allow people to think about the causes and legitimacy of war.

Journalists acknowledge the risks of traveling to battlefields. For professional journalists, “I cannot go because it is dangerous,” is not justifiable. All of the war journalists I know agree with this sentiment.

However, the recent murder of Japanese hostages by the Islamic State (ISIL) presents an opportunity to reconsider the nature of war reporting.

One of the murdered hostages is Kenji Goto, a journalist who reported and produced many video reports on war in Africa and the Middle East. He could be described as one of the most experienced war reporters in Japan.

I am sure that he fully understood the risks of reporting from Syria, a country experiencing a violent civil war, and prepared accordingly. However, based on news reports, there are several aspects of his method of entering Syria that I do not understand. At that time, several Japanese journalists had already directly contacted ISIL and obtained a “permit” for reporting from territories controlled by ISIL. This permit served as a type of “visa” for journalists. It does not appear that Mr. Goto utilized this method and instead hired a guide to help him enter the ISIL controlled territory. This is extremely dangerous. After being abducted, Mr. Goto explained that his guide sold him to ISIL. If this is true, there were likely issues with Mr. Goto’s methods of reporting.

Reporting on the civil wars and urban battlefields of Syria and Iraq present some of the most dangerous risks in the history of war reporting. This is because the front line is undefined and there are no clear distinctions between war zones and safe zones. In urban battlefields, as soon you turn a corner just a few dozen meters way, you may find yourself in the middle of a firefight or targeted by a sniper from a building hundreds of meters away. To make matters worse, ISIL has continuously abducted and murdered foreigners in Syria regardless of their status as humanitarian workers or journalists.

It is essential to hire skilled and reliable guides and coordinators when reporting from these locations as the success and safety of reporting relies to a large extent on who is serving as the reporter’s guide. This begs the question, was Mr. Goto’s guide a trustworthy individual? The answer to this question will surely become clear as details come to light.

During the Vietnam War, more than ten Japanese journalists lost their lives reporting on the conflict – the most Japanese journalist casualties since World War II.

There has been a sharp decline in Japanese journalist casualties since the Vietnam War. As far as I can recall, in the forty years since the Vietnam War, there have been eight Japanese journalists who lost their lives due to gunfire or landmines. Six were freelance reporters and most casualties occurred in the ten-year period after the Iraq War. Furthermore, the majority of them were video journalists. Video journalists tend to get as close as possible to battlefields in order to capture powerful images and therefore put themselves at great risk.

Most journalists who report from warzones consider being shot and killed a professional risk akin to being “killed in the line of duty.” Professions such as police and firefighters come with a certain level of risk. Journalists are no different.

Unfortunately there is no such thing as safe war reporting as it is impossible to completely minimize risk no matter how much experience or knowledge a reporter has.

Journalists approach warzones fully aware of these risks.

“Somebody has to go to the places that nobody wants to go.”

These are the words of Kenji Nagai who was shot and killed in September 2007 by government soldiers while reporting on pro-democracy protests in Burma (Myanmar). Even if it is a battlefield, the only way to report on the truth of war is by going there in person. That is the nature of being a journalist.

The Japanese government recently confiscated the passport of a freelance journalist who was planning to report from Syria. The message sent by the government is “If you are going to a dangerous region, we will take your passport.” This is unacceptable. The decision to report from the ground is the journalist’s to make, not the government’s.

In Japan there is a common argument along the lines of “There is no need to go somewhere to report if it is going to cause trouble for the government and nation.” However, journalism’s purpose is to monitor authority. If the government is allowed to interfere and control it, journalism as a whole will be essentially committing suicide.

It is necessary to recognize that journalism supports the very foundations of a democratic society.

Akihiro Nonaka
Professor, Faculty of Political Science and Economics, Waseda University

[Profile]
Professor Nonaka was born in Hyogo Prefecture in 1953. He is a journalist and producer. Currently He is a professor at Waseda University (Graduate School of Political Science and Economics/Graduate School of Journalism). He is also a representative of Asia Press International and formerly a member of the Asahi Shimbun Advisory Press Council.

He has reported on third world issues with a focus on Asia. These include, issues that face Americans of Japanese descent, refugees in Indochina, civil war in Afghanistan, famine in Ethiopia, former Japanese soldiers of Taiwanese descent, the Cambodian Civil War, ethnic minorities in Burma, aids in Thailand, Tibet sovereignty, the fight for independence in East Timor, the Korean Peninsula, aerial bombing in Afghanistan, and the Iraq War. He received a Special Prize at the 3rd Broadcast Creators Association of Japan Grand Prix Awards.

Books that he has edited, co-written or written include Media Practice [Medeia Purakutisu] (Serika Shobo), New Century and New Markets in Asia [Ajia Shinseiki/Shijo] (Iwanami Shoten), Conflict: Educating Journalists Today [Ronso Ima Janarisuto Kyoiku] (University of Tokyo Press), and The Possibilities of Journalism [Jyanarizumu-no Kanosei] (Iwanami Shoten).