The Risks and Rewards of the War Correspondent: Kenji Goto and the Pressure on Abe

The beheading of journalist Kenji Goto by the Islamic State (IS) has raised questions about Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s intention to ‘normalise’ his country by revising the constitution to allow Japan to engage in military operations beyond the realms of national self-defence. A sensitive subject given the recent history of virulent Japanese militarism, critics of Abe have suggested that more incidents like the Goto execution will occur should the Prime Minister get his way.

Shinzo Abe has been criticised by some for his attempts to end the hostage crisis successfully
Shinzo Abe has been criticised by some for his attempts to end the hostage crisis successfully

Goto’s brutal decapitation comes shortly after the murder of countryman Haruna Yukawa by IS. An understandably traumatic time for the Japanese nation, critics of Abe have failed to take into account a fairly obvious fact: both Goto and Yukawa were in the warzone voluntarily. Yukawa was a former military contractor tasked with protecting Japanese companies in the Middle East, whilst Goto was a renowned journalist.

Indeed, most of the high-profile IS killings have been of people who were consciously aware that they were in an extremely dangerous area and that their lives were at risk. Several have been aid workers (David Haines, Alan Henning) whilst others have been journalists (James Foley, Steven Sotloff). Knowing the dangers does not mean that these people deserved their fates and their bravery is commendable. War correspondents, in particular, have played a vital role in spreading global awareness of the realities of conflict for centuries.

One can trace the earliest first-hand accounts of conflict to the days of the Ancient Greeks, where the likes of Herodotus and Thucydides wrote extensive accounts of their experiences of the Persian and Peloponnesian Wars respectively. Chroniclers of various creeds would follow in the footsteps of these masters to regale the stories of war for hundreds of years to come.

With the invention of the electrical telegraph in the 19th century, modern-day war reporting began in earnest. Able to relay their daily stories within a matter of hours rather than having to summarise several months’ worth of anecdote into a post-conflict account, journalists became active participants in the theatre of war.

William Howard Russell spent almost two years covering the Crimean War. His telegraph reports made him famous back in Britain
William Howard Russell spent almost two years covering the Crimean War. His telegraph reports made him famous back in Britain

As one might expect, and as most of the war correspondents accepted, this particular non-combatant role was fraught with danger. Indeed, there are numerous examples of reporters being killed whilst covering a conflict. As early as 1883, Edmund O’Donovan of the Daily News died covering the Mahdist War in Sudan. In 1945, Joseph Morton of the Associated Press was executed by the Nazis when he was caught alongside Slovakian partisans.

Even renowned journalists such as Robert Capa were not immune from the dangers. The Hungarian, who had gained fame for his coverage of the Spanish Civil War, stepped on a landmine whilst covering the First Indochina War in 1954 and perished. The subsequent Vietnam War would claim the lives of at least 63 journalists.

The Falling Soldier: Whilst often staged, many of Capa's photos effectively conveyed the emotions of war to a global audience.
The Falling Soldier: Whilst often staged, many of Capa’s photos effectively conveyed the emotions of war to a global audience.

With the advent of multiple media platforms and easy air travel, war reporting became increasingly accessible and popular. It is therefore no surprise that journalistic fatalities in conflict zones have been widespread in recent years. The wars in Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria have claimed dozens of media lives.

Because of their prevalence and influence, war correspondents have become targets in their own right. The IS beheadings follow on from similar occurrences in the Middle East in recent years and this threat will not diminish.

Kenji Goto knew the risks, as did his professional colleagues who have laid down their lives so that we can be well-informed about the true horrors of the world. As with the death of a soldier, their lives should be commemorated and celebrated.

They should not be cheapened by their use as political tools to pressurise a national leader who only has his country’s best interests at heart.

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Author: Stefan Lang

An interested observer of current affairs, researcher and writer

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