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Wednesday, April 14, 2004

Government slaps media gag on hostage crisis staffers


Staff writer

The government on Tuesday effectively imposed a media gag on staffers working at its headquarters dealing with the Iraq hostage crisis.

The staffers were reportedly told to keep quiet following leaks of unconfirmed -- and apparently unfounded -- information pertaining to the fate of the three civilian hostages.

"I think leaks of fragmentary information can cause confusion," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda told a regular news conference. "It is a matter concerning the safety and lives of the hostages. Half-baked explanations only do harm."

Even at official news conferences, Fukuda is now declining to answer most questions on how the government is handling the crisis, saying the captives' lives are at stake.

The government set up the crisis headquarters last Thursday night after the Qatar-based TV station Al-Jazeera broadcast a video of the hostages held at gunpoint by masked members of a group calling itself Saraya al-Mujahideen.

Reporters have since tried to interview officials every time they enter or leave the headquarters at the Prime Minister's Official Residence in Tokyo, but the officials said they no longer give replies.

Government officials had leaked at least two separate pieces of unconfirmed information that the hostages would shortly be released over the past six days.

It was first mooted that the hostages could be released by noon Sunday Japan time -- a revelation that followed an Al-Jazeera report earlier in the morning quoting a statement apparently by the kidnappers that the Japanese would be released within 24 hours.

It was then reported that Al-Jazeera would be broadcasting a video of the scene of the Japanese being released Monday afternoon. No such video was aired.

According to a high-ranking government official, the media gag was imposed amid concerns that the expectations voiced after Sunday morning's Al-Jazeera report may have prompted the kidnappers to change their minds about releasing the hostages.

Some government officials expressed joy immediately after the news on Sunday morning -- yet more than two days after the abductors' statement was aired, there is no solid information as to the whereabouts or safety of the hostages. "We were too optimistic. If we had reacted calmly to the group's announcement, the hostages might have been returned," the official said.

Speculation is rife that the group may have split into two factions: one supporting the release of the hostages and another supporting their continued use as political leverage against the Japanese government.

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi also voiced concern over information control during his meeting Tuesday with New Komeito chief Takenori Kanzaki, according to party sources. Koizumi said that leaking information could endanger informants and eventually prevent the government from obtaining more information on the hostages and their kidnappers.



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