Can the government take away a journalist’s passport and the right to do his job?
After covering conflicts and humanitarian disasters around the world for more than two decades, freelance cameraman Yuichi Sugimoto suddenly found himself unable to leave his own country. Forced to surrender his passport on Feb. 7 by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to prevent him traveling to Syria, the Niigata native was told not to expect that it would be returned. Aside from being somewhat reminiscent of the Sakoku Edict of 1635 that largely isolated Japan for more than two centuries, his case raises questions about freedom of the press, freedom of movement and whether the holding of a passport is a right or a granted privilege.
The root of Sugimoto’s woes lay in an interview he gave to a local Niigata newspaper at the beginning of February, during the course of which he told the reporter he intended to visit Syria again to cover the conflict there. A couple of days later he was contacted by a Ministry of Foreign Affairs official, citing the article and asking if he was planning to visit Syria. Sugimoto says he explained he had travelled to the region numerous times, and that he wouldn’t be going to areas controlled by the so-called Islamic State. With memories of the murder of fellow freelancer Kenji Goto still raw in the nation-al psyche, the official asked him not to travel to the region; Sugimoto explained his intentions were unchanged.
Returning to his apartment on the evening of Feb. 7, he noticed a group of men standing in a nearby parking lot. The men approached as he reached his front door and identified themselves as foreign ministry officials accompanied by local police officers. Once inside his apartment, a lengthy to and froensued about his intentions to travel, culminating with the ministry officials’ demand that Sugimoto surrender his passport. After being repeatedly threatened with arrest and shown a document from Minister of Foreign Affairs Fumio Kishida ordering the confiscation of his passport, Sugimoto complied.
One of the officials, a deputy director of the consulate division of the ministry, told Sugimoto the confiscation of his passport was permanent and under no circumstances would he get it back.
On Feb. 12, Sugimoto held a press conference at the FCCJ, where he recounted what had happened. He said he believed this was the first case of the Japanese government confiscating the passport of a journalist in the post-war era. “I’m concerned that this could set a very bad precedent in this country . . . affecting the freedom to report news,” said Sugimoto.
Sugimoto declared his intention to fight the government in the courts to get his passport returned and asked the assembled foreign correspondents whether their own governments would take similar actions. A number of members of the assembled media told Sugimoto that the authorities in their home countries would be either unable or unwilling to confiscate the passport of a journalist, though some later conceded they were unaware of the legal specifics.
Under the Japanese Passport Law, there is a provision that allows the government to confiscate a passport if it will protect the holder’s life, though Sugimoto pointed out his intention was to travel to Kobani, an area controlled by Kurdish fighters who have conducted a number of press tours for foreign journalists.
Kazuko Ito, a Tokyo-based lawyer and head of Human Rights Now in Japan, is fully supportive of Sugimoto’s position, but has concerns about the implications of a ruling against Sugimoto, particularly given the current political climate.
“I have no doubt that this is a violation of the Constitution. It is a violation of the freedom of the press, as well as freedom of movement, both of which are are guaranteed by the Constitution. However, it is not predictable how a court, and eventually the Japanese Supreme Court, might rule,” said Ito. “To date, I have not learned of any constitutional precedent for confiscating the passport of Japanese national.
“If there is any chance that the court would rule that the state does have authority to restrict overseas activities, we have to think about the implications for other journalists and humanitarian workers in deciding whether to pursue litigation on this,” she said. “No matter whether the Sugimoto case is going to be a legal fight or not, our society should raise its voice against such interventions against the individual freedom by the government.”
Sugimoto firmly believes his rights have been infringed by an unconstitutional confiscation. “It’s written in the Constitution that citizens have the right to travel, but that is being ignored. I understand if Japan went to war, for example, that the interests of the nation would come first, but this is everyday life,” said Sugimoto. “It’s as if there is no Constitution.”
“The Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs has taken my job and my life work,” he said. “These are basic human rights. The foreign ministry is not thinking about Japanese citizens, it is thinking about the ministry. This was a kind of performance in the wake of Goto-san being murdered.”
Although he was told that the confiscation was permanent, ministry officials have since told him he may now apply for a new passport, which he was in the process of doing at the time of writing. Ministry officials have since inferred to Sugimoto that he likely will be given a new passport, though he says they wouldn’t give him a definite answer.
By coincidence, on the same day as Sugimoto’s FCCJ press conference, in Britain the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 (CTSA) received Royal Assent, allowing authorities to confiscate the passports of UK citizens suspected of attempting to travel abroad for the purpose of engaging in terrorism-related activities. The CTSA was passed as part of the response to more than 600 Britons having traveled to fight with religious extremists in Syria.
Even for suspected terrorists, there are time limits and restrictions on confiscations under the CTSA, in contrast to the threat Sugimoto faced of permanent deprivation. A spokesperson for the Home Office in London said that while the new rules didn’t distinguish between professions, there were no circumstances in which a journalist would have their passport confiscated unless they were planning to engage in terrorism.
The Times’ Richard Lloyd Parry noted, “At the time of the 2002 World Cup [hosted by Japan and South Korea], it became clear how few categories of people could be deprived of their passports in Britain. You can take it away from someone because you suspect that he might in the future perpetrate acts of football hooliganism but not murder or rape, for example.”
Journalists take risks on occasion, which sometimes produce valuable results, and sometimes not, pointed out Lloyd Parry. “Often the difference between wisdom and foolishness, success and failure, is very hard to judge and measure, even with hindsight. If Kenji Goto had somehow come out alive with a story about Isis, he would have been regarded very differently,” he said. “No one certainly no government is entitled to make that judgment on journalists’ behalf.”
Lloyd Parry believes that no British leader would dare try anything like the confiscation of Sugimoto’s passport. “It would bring a storm of anger and denunciation which no government would wish to provoke,” he said.
Some of the public’s reaction in Japan to the murders of Kenji Goto and his friend Haruna Yukawa has been less than sympathetic, while Sugimoto has faced criticism for wanting to travel against the advice of the government. Lloyd Parry pointed out the very different reaction to the exploits of extreme skier and mountaineer Yuichiro Miura, who is lauded despite engaging in high-risk activities that endanger his teams and potentially, rescuers.
“Such rescue efforts are immensely expensive. Mr. Miura has no serious scientific purpose it is just for glory, ” he said. “And yet when he plans such undertakings, he is cheered, and when he comes home they pin medals on his chest.”
If the U.S. government were to confiscate passports of its journalists, the reaction would be far more vocal than it has been in Japan, believes Martin Fackler of the New York Times. “It would also be ineffective, as so many foreign correspondents for U.S. media are non-U.S. citizens,” he said.
“Citizens have the right to travel . . . It’s as if there is no Constitution.”
“I know plenty of journalists who have gone to places like Cuba and North Korea to report, including myself,” Fackler said. “We certainly don’t hide the fact that we have gone since we use the dateline in our stories. It never occurred to me that the government might try to stop me by confiscating a passport.
“And given that the U.S. has already declared that it won’t pay ransom for citizens who are kidnapped, it has essentially washed itself of responsibility for us if something happens. Maybe that makes it unnecessary to grab passports. The government can just say it was our fault for being there,” said Fackler.
Despite receiving some anonymous phone calls from people accusing him of being a traitor, Sugimoto said local people have been overwhelmingly supportive, some even stopping him on the streets of Niigata to have their picture taken with him.
The Japanese media, however, has been muted in its response. NHK Niigata made a 30-minute program about Sugimoto that was due for broadcast on February 13. That didn’t happen. “Being a public broadcaster, NHK has delayed showing the program as they would get complaints about it,” said Sugimoto.
While the media companies that Sugimoto worked for over the years have reported on his case, none have come out in open support of him. But Sugimoto says that some of them have recently bought video footage and still photographs that he shot previously in Syria and Turkey.
“I don’t know whether you’d call it support, but it’s better than not having any money,” said Sugimoto.
Gavin Blair covers Japanese business, society and culture for publications in America, Asia, and Europe.