New York, September 26, 2001— Japanese free-lance journalist Kosuke Tsuneoka has now been missing since late July, when he reportedly left Georgia for Chechnya to interview Chechen rebels.
Tsuneoka, 32, last communicated with his family via e-mail at the end of July after arriving in Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital, the Japan Economic Newswire reported. He wrote that he planned to visit Chechnya.
Tsuneoka also e-mailed his friend Kendziro Kato, a military journalist based in Tokyo, telling him that he would return from Chechnya to Georgia by August 15. Tsuneoka was traveling on a one-month Georgian visa, ITAR-TASS reported.
“We are very concerned about the safety of Kosuke Tsuneoka and encourage Georgian and Russian authorities to make every effort to locate him,” said CPJ executive director Ann Cooper. “This is yet another reminder that journalists covering the conflict in Chechnya continue to face significant security risks.”
The Kremlin claims Tsuneoka was not accredited to work in the Northern Caucasus region and has denied any knowledge of journalist’s whereabouts. But Russian officials pledged they would “try to find out” where he is.
The Georgian Interior Ministry has stated that it has no information on Tsuneoka’s location, while the Georgian Foreign Ministry’s press center said the journalist had not requested accreditation, according to ITAR-TASS.
Before his trip to Georgia, Tsuneoka had worked in Moscow as a free-lance journalist.
Tsuneoka’s case is the latest in a string of journalists reported missing or killed in the region. According to CPJ research, six journalists have been killed and four have been reported missing since the current conflict began in 1999.
Some of the missing journalists have turned up alive, notably Andrei Babitsky, a Russian national who covered Chechnya for the U.S. governmentfunded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Babitsky disappeared on January 16, 2000, while on assignment in the Chechen capital, Grozny. After two weeks of denial and silence, officials in Moscow admitted that the reporter was being held by the Russian military.
Following several more weeks of contradictory official reports and international pressure, Babitsky was finally released in Dagestan on February 25.
While some journalists travel to Chechnya through Georgia to avoid Russian military escorts, the Georgia-Chechnya border is rife with danger. Like other travelers, journalists face the risk of being kidnapped by Chechen bands operating in Georgia.
Last year, Italian journalist Antonio Russo was found dead by the side of a mountain road near the village of Ujarma, some 40 kilometers east of Tbilisi.
While Russo lived in Tbilisi, he maintained frequent contacts with Chechen rebel forces. According to some reports, at the time of his murder he was planning to return to Italy with information he had collected on war crimes committed by the Russian military in Chechnya.
The case remains unresolved, and it is unclear whether his death was related to his reporting, or whether he was the victim of robbery or random violence.