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Kenji Goto: A life in the service of others

Kenji Goto traveled to Syria to help free a fellow Japanese national. But the journalist ended up being captured and was reportedly killed by "Islamic State." DW examines Goto's life work and the impact of his murder.

In October of 2014, Japanese freelance journalist Kenji Goto set off to Syria in a bid to negotiate the release of his 42-year-old friend and fellow Japanese national, Haruna Yukawa, who had been captured by "Islamic State" militants last summer. However, shortly after crossing the border from Turkey into Syria things went terribly wrong for the 47-year-old. Goto was also taken hostage and held for ransom alongside Yukawa.

An initial ransom for both men was set at 200 million USD - a sum intended by the "IS" militants to mirror the amount Japan recently pledged in humanitarian, non-military aid to the Middle East. Unfortunately for Yukawa, the first negotiation steps were to no avail. On Saturday, January 24, the extremist group released a video, claiming it had killed Yukawa due to unpaid ransom.

Video shows beheading

After the killing of Yukawa, the extremists released a video of Goto, warning that both the 47-year-old journalist and a captured Jordanian pilot, Lt Mu'ath al-Kasasbeh, had 24 hours to live unless Jordan released Sajida al-Rishawi, an Iraqi death-row inmate who was convicted for her involvement in the 2005 suicide bomb attacks in the capital which killed 60 people. Jordanian state TV quoted a government spokesman as saying that Amman was ready to release the prisoner "if the Jordanian pilot is freed unharmed."

A screenshot taken from a video posted on YouTube website by Al-Furqan Media on 20 January 2015 shows an Islamic State militia member standing between two Japanese hostages in orange jumpsuits, identified as Haruna Yukawa (R) and Kenji Goto (L) (Photo: EPA/AL-FURQAN MEDIA)

On Saturday, January 24, the extremist group released a video claiming it had killed Yukawa due to the unpaid ransom

It was unclear, however, whether this trade would also lead to Goto's release. Tokyo had been urgently seeking Jordan's help and has sent Deputy Foreign Minister Yasuhide Nakayama to Amman to head an emergency response team. But all efforts by Japanese and Jordanian authorities seemed to have been in vain. On Saturday, January 31, a video was released by "IS," claiming that the journalist had been beheaded. This gave rise to doubts about the Japanese government's handling of the hostage crisis.

An experienced journalist

Goto made a name for himself in Japanese media for his coverage of high-conflict areas such as Iraq, Afghanistan, and Somalia. Due to his interest in helping people afflicted by crises, he also founded a small news agency, Independent Press, which focuses on delivering news on refugees, people with AIDS, and children in crisis zones.

According to The Japan Times newspaper, he wrote numerous books, ranging from an account of an Afghan girl hoping to go to school, to reportage on a 16-year-old mother infected with the HIV virus in a town in Estonia where rampant drug abuse has spread the infectious disease among a large number of its residents.

Moreover, in 2006 Goto won a children's book award by the Sankei Shimbun for his 2005 book titled "Daiyamondo yori Heiwa ga Hoshii" (I Want Peace Rather Than a Diamond), a non-fiction book about a former child soldier in Sierra Leone who, severely traumatized by the civil war there, is trying to rebuild his life, said the paper.

Last contact

But it was likely Goto's fascination with the Middle East and covering the conflicts in the region that first brought him to Syria and Iraq. It was in Syria that Yukawa and Goto first met. The experienced war journalist advised Yukawa on security practices and the two traveled to Iraq together. After learning that his friend Yukawa had been captured by a group claiming to be connected with IS, Goto felt compelled to attempt to negotiate his release.

Prior to the hostage videos released by "IS" militants, the last contact from Goto came in the form of a cell phone video recorded on his Turkish assistant's phone, which was released by Japanese public broadcaster NHK. The video shows Goto saying, "If something happens, all the responsibility is on me." He also promised, "But I will definitely come back alive."

Unfortunately for the experienced journalist, this promise was not to be fulfilled.

'We will never forgive the terrorists'

Goto's capture and his reported death prompted strong reactions across Japan. PM Shinzo Abe reacted by saying, "The government has done everything in its power, but I cannot but feel the deepest regret. I am extremely angered by this immoral and despicable act of terrorism." At an emergency cabinet meeting on Sunday, he continued by saying, "We will never forgive the terrorists."

Abe also defended his policy toward terrorism, saying his announcement of 200 million USD in non-military aid for the fight against "IS" was meant to convey Japan's strong commitment to battling terrorism and fostering peace and stability in the region. Some, however, have questioned that decision, saying Abe should have been more cautious and not mentioned "IS" by name.

Junko Ishido, Mutter der japanischen IS-Geisel Kenji Goto

'I can't find the words to describe how I feel about my son's very sad death,' said Goto's mother

Goto's family also responded to the tragedy: "While feeling a great personal loss, I remain extremely proud of my husband. It was his passion to highlight the effects on ordinary people, especially through the eyes of children, and to inform the rest of us of the tragedies of war," said Goto's wife in a statement released by the Rory Peck Trust, an England-based organization that supports freelance journalists.

Goto's mother, Junko Ishido, told reporters, "I can't find the words to describe how I feel about my son's very sad death." The 76-year-old had previously said that her son was not an enemy of IS, and defended Goto against criticism that the two men had acted foolishly in traveling to such a dangerous region, arguing that her son had left with only honorable intentions.

"He went to Syria to rescue a colleague. He thought that if he could speak directly to 'Islamic State' he could make them understand," The Guardian newspaper quoted her as saying.

Condolences and condemnation

The latest incidents also prompted international condemnation. Members of the United Nations Security Council spoke out against "IS," strongly condemning this "heinous and cowardly murder." In a statement the UN body stressed, "Those responsible for the killing of Kenji Goto shall be held accountable." The Council also demanded the "immediate, safe and unconditional release of all those who are kept hostage by Islamic State."

Japans Ministerpräsident Shinzo Abe nach Enthauptung japanischer IS-Geisel

'I am extremely angered by this immoral and despicable act of terrorism,' said Japanese PM Shinzo Abe

The US has been working to verify the latest video in which Goto appears to be executed. In response to the recent executions of both Goto and Yukawa, US president Barack Obama said "the United States condemns the heinous murder of Japanese citizen and journalist Kenji Goto by the terrorist group 'IS.' Through his reporting, Mr. Goto courageously sought to convey the plight of the Syrian people to the outside world."

Media watchdog Reporters Without Borders called on the international community to remember this "brutal murder." Program director Lucie Morillon said, "We are deeply saddened by Kenji Goto's death and we offer our heartfelt condolences to his wife, family and friends."

In light of the recent rise in IS-linked journalist killings, Morillon called on international leaders to "not let this crime or the previous ones go unpunished. Our thoughts also go out to the families of the other murdered hostages, especially James Foley and Steven Sotloff, who were targeted for trying to cover what is going on in Syria."