Japan defends seizing journalist's passport over ISIS fear

Mourning demonstrators hold a silent prayer rally and protest against Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's behavior and the murder of hostages held by Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militants, in Tokyo, on Feb 1, 2015. Tokyo on Monday, F
Mourning demonstrators hold a silent prayer rally and protest against Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's behavior and the murder of hostages held by Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militants, in Tokyo, on Feb 1, 2015. Tokyo on Monday, Feb 9, defended its confiscation of the passport of a Japanese journalist planning to travel to Syria, saying it was for his own protection. -- PHOTO: EPA

TOKYO (AFP) - Tokyo defended Monday its confiscation of the passport of a Japanese journalist planning to travel to Syria, as the country reels from the execution of two citizens by extremists.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said the government took travel documents away from freelance photographer Yuichi Sugimoto, 58, for his own safety, after learning of his plan to cover refugee camps in the war-torn country.

"'Islamic State' has expressed its resolve to continue killing Japanese," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a regular press briefing.

"If a Japanese national enters Syria... we have assessed that there is a high risk that the person would face immediate danger to his life, like being captured by ISIL (militants) and other Islamic extremists," he said, using another acronym for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) which executed the two Japanese last month.

Suga said the government had given consideration to both the principle of a free press and the government's responsibility to protect the safety of Japanese nationals in confiscating the document.

Japan reacted in horror to the beheadings of war correspondent Kenji Goto and his friend Haruna Yukawa. Their murders have provoked a measure of soul-searching over the direction of Japanese diplomacy.

However, the crisis appears to have done little to dent the popularity of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, which inched up 1.4 points to 54.2 percent in a national poll taken Friday and Saturday by Kyodo News.

Some 60.8 percent of those questioned said they supported the government's handling of the hostage crisis.

The telephone survey had valid responses from 1,015 people.

The Japanese government had sought help from Jordan to rescue the two Japanese hostages, who were shown in a video released by the militant group late January with a demand for a US$200 million (S$250 million) ransom.

Days later, the group released a video of Goto holding a photo of Yukawa's headless body, and changed their demand to the release of a woman extremist on death row in Jordan.

Amman responded by demanding the release of Jordanian airman Muath al-Kasaesbeh, who was held captive by the militant group.

The extremist group killed all three men.

In response, Jordan executed two Iraqi extremists, including the female would-be suicide bomber, and accelerated its air strikes on the Islamic State group.