In the last week, digital graphic designers such as Isaku Ogura have suddenly found themselves in strong demand for media commentary on the plight of two fellow Japanese taken hostage by ISIS. Broadcast media have given exhaustive attention to doubts over the authenticity of several disturbing ransom videos released by is depicting hostages Haruna Yukawa and Kenji Goto. The initial video of 20 January showed them kneeling in the desert in orange robes; an aesthetic chillingly familiar from previous is videos depicting the imminent execution of American and British hostages that their governments had refused to pay monetary and policy ransoms to spare.
Between the two Japanese stood a menacing ISIS figure brandishing a knife and threatening their lives if a ransom equivalent to US$200 million was not paid by the Japanese Government within three days.
The huge demand mirrored the figure Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had just pledged, during a visit to the Middle East, for humanitarian assistance for those displaced by the rise of ISIS. The confronting imagery and ominous outlook for Yukawa, self-styled military consultant, and freelance journalist Goto meant an intense level of media interest. Yet the inevitable information void as urgent diplomatic overtures were made in private left the mass media with little to work with.
Doubts about the veracity of the video became central to media coverage. Expert opinion suggested that inconsistencies in the appearing patterns of shadows and wind, and the nature of their gazes, made it likely that the scene in the video was a digitally constructed composite. The two hostages appeared to have been filmed separately, in perhaps quite different locations and conditions. Isaku Ogura concurred and also observed that the vivid orange colour, widely judged to be an ironic ISIS reference to the prisoners' garb warn by Islamist militants incarcerated by the US in Guantanamo Bay, also made digital manipulation easier.
That Islamic State would risk diminishing its credibility through resorting to computer graphics after so brutally and effectively cultivating a reputation for both determined action and media management raised various questions, not least whether its physical operational scope had been heavily constrained.
Yet the issue of the video's authenticity was largely a sideshow. There was little doubt that both men had fallen into the hands of ISIS, a fact soon confirmed by the Abe Government. Yukawa had been depicted in another video being interrogated by ISIS fighters the previous August, while Goto had been considered missing since December. A small response team had been formed in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs well before the ransom video was released, and at that point it was upscaled to a full crisis management operation, with regional headquarters in Japan's Amman embassy. While several Arab studies academics and other critics soon suggested that Abe might have further endangered the two hostages through his strong anti-ISIS stance during his Middle East trip, criticism was generally muted.
Rather, media coverage and political discussion became more sombre and guarded when, four days later, ISIS released a subsequent video showing only a still image of Goto holding what appears to be a picture of Yukawa's decapitated body. The Abe Government had made no statement on the payment of a ransom but commentators were hesitant to link Yukawa's probable death to non-payment. Neither were any about to endorse publicly the Anglo policy position of not paying ransoms, especially when it emerged that Kenji Goto's second daughter had been born only two weeks ago. The Abe Government affirmed the probability that Yukawa was indeed murdered, although doubts were cast by technical experts on whether it really was Goto narrating, in English, the video that announced it.
Media and political actors immediately sought to project gravitas. Television stations have engaged in what some critics described as self-censorship, dropping segments that might be vulnerable to claims of insensitivity. Fuji Television chose not to screen an episode of a crime series that depicted an assailant wielding a knife, and Asahi Television dropped a new music video by popular group KAT-TUN with the English song title 'Dead or Alive'. Nippon Television subbed one comedy act for another as their material was considered sensitive in the circumstances.
The Abe Government has been careful to avoid giving weight to past impressions that Japan will pay a ransom, while vowing to make all efforts to end to the crisis through diplomatic endeavours. To this end, Abe was helped directly by Islamic State's dropping of a demand for a cash ransom in favour of demanding an exchange for Sajida al-Rishawi, facing a death sentence in Jordan since 2006 for a failed suicide bombing on an Amman hotel. Jordan's priority, though, is securing the return of one of its own citizens, captured pilot Maaz al-Kassasbeh, whose F-16 crashed on 24 December while carrying out an airstrike against ISIS.
ISIS's savvy was affirmed with the release of a third video, a still image showing Goto holding a picture of the pilot, accompanied by a purported recording of Goto speaking in English. In it he specifies that the Jordanians had only 24 hours to release Rishawi, and that the Japanese Government should pressure the Jordanians to do so, or both he and the pilot would die. ISIS thereby put in place a mechanism for a trade, with the possibility of Japan paying ransom through Jordanian channels in way that is publicly deniable.
While a US State Department spokeswoman has said that an exchange of prisoners would be 'in the same category' as ransom payment that it opposes, the Israelis have a long history of hardheaded prisoner exchanges. It was in while in Jerusalem that Abe was confronted with Islamic State's initial ransom demand.
With the 24 hour deadline for a trade having passed late yesterday (the 28th), the media and Japanese audiences now await developments.
It is likely that, longer term, the hostage-taking will be used by some Japanese critics of the US alliance; China's Global Times has already done in a predictable editorial critique of Abe's foreign policy. A comment by one junior Japan Communist Party Diet member to the effect that Abe had shown insufficient regard for the lives of Japanese was promptly withdrawn under pressure from the party leadership.
A more focused line of criticism is the Government's ostensible failure to anticipate such a crisis, given the prior knowledge within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the likelihood of Yukawa and Goto being held by Islamic State. The opposition Democratic Party of Japan was already hinting at that yesterday, though it's tone today was more bipartisan terms as hopes rise that a deal involving Jordan might be in the offing.
A shared sense of decorum has made politicisation of the crisis off limits while the fate of the hostages remains uncertain. Meanwhile, the mass media struggles to find something new to report within the tight bounds of these sensibilities.