Why beheading journalists backfires

The Islamic State has now beheaded three journalists, the latest being Kenji Goto of Japan. His reports on the innocent in conflicts only highlights why groups like ISIL need a spotlight of journalistic truth on them.

AP Photo
An uncle of Japanese journalist Kenji Goto holds a copy of the 2005 book on Sierra Leone that Goto wrote with the title of "We Want Peace, Not Diamonds," as the uncle meets with journalists Feb. 1. The news of Goto's killing sent Japan into mourning, days after his plight as a hostage in Syria united many people in praying for his release.

Journalists are frequently targeted simply for doing their job of helping others better understand the world. Most people want this truth-telling service and might even pay for it. But often those in authority or those with guns seek to jail or kill a news messenger. These days, reporters from China to Egypt and even in the United States face various types of repression. But nothing quite compares to the beheading of three journalists in recent months by the Islamic State militants.

The latest reporter to be killed by the jihadist group, Japanese freelancer Kenji Goto, knew the dangers of reporting near a war zone like that in Syria. He had once been captured by Al Qaeda and released. Two American journalists beheaded by IS last year, James Foley and Steven Sotloff, also knew the dangers. All three may have been killed as much for their nationality as their profession. Yet that should not prevent a reaffirmation of the journalist’s role in casting a healing light on the darkest corners of the human condition.

Mr. Goto’s special reporting skill was in highlighting the plight of innocent people caught in the midst of a tragedy. He had reported on Syria’s refugees during the four years of the country’s civil war. One of his reports focused on how the use of torture by the Syrian regime had driven many people to support the rebellion. During Sierra Leone’s civil war, he focused on the war’s harm to children.

“The ‘front lines’ of my reporting are where people suffer the unbearable and yet where they are still trying to live,” he told a Japanese newspaper, Christian Today. “If I manage to find an outlet for their stories in the world, that might lead to a solution.” 

He described his approach as “cuddling” with people to better understand their pain and their hopes. In video released by his captors before his death, he said calmly to the camera, “No matter what happens to me, I will always love the people of Syria.” 

One reason for his focus on the innocent in Syria is that he wanted to show that a majority of Muslims are not extremists, thus correcting a mis-impression often presented by other media. The pastor at his church in Japan, Hiroshi Tamura, asked that his killing should not trigger a negative reaction. “It would be the unhappiest thing, if fear comes to dominate people’s minds because of this,” he told the English-language Japan Times.

As purveyors of truth, journalists are by default often players in those places where people prefer to bend or avoid the truth. Last year, at least 60 journalists were killed in the line of duty, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Another watchdog group, Reporters Without Borders, stated in a recent report the targeting of journalists is “becoming more and more barbaric and the number of abductions is growing rapidly, with those carrying them out seeking to prevent independent news coverage and deter scrutiny to the outside world.” 

As traditional media cut back on the number of reporters in foreign posts, the world must rely more on freelancers like Goto, or even “citizen journalists” who use social media. Protecting them is as necessary as protecting each person’s desire to “live in truth,” as the late Czech human-rights activist Václav Havel put it, and in the need to support a desire for peace among the innocent in a conflict.

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