Honoring the fallen and the brave

“If nobody goes, then somebody has to go.” That, according to his editors at APF News, was the personal motto of fallen Japanese video journalist Kenji Nagai, who until his tragic death had reported from conflict zones around the world.

That journalistic drive put Nagai in the line of fire during Burma’s 2007 Saffron Revolution, when he was shot and killed by a soldier while filming a government crackdown on street demonstrations in the old capital of Rangoon. 


And it’s a spirit that will now be annually memorialized through the new Kenji Nagai Award, which was bestowed for the first time to imprisoned Burmese journalist Eine Khine Oo during the sixth annual Burma Media Association (BMA) conference held in Chiang Mai, Thailand, on February 21.

 The newly launched press freedom award is co-sponsored by the Tokyo-based AFP News and BMA. Each year it will recognize a Burmese journalist who has been harassed, arrested or killed for reporting in the country’s highly restricted media environment, BMA’s vice president Zin Linn, told CPJ.


A video montage prepared by APF to inaugurate the award showed clips of Nagai’s frontline reporting from the occupied Palestinian territory, Iraq and Burma, as well as posthumous images of his desk in Tokyo overflowing with flowers of condolence. A rock-and-roll song Nagai composed, entitled “See you,” was played as part of the video’s score.


One of his editors noted that despite repeated requests Burmese authorities have failed to return the camera Nagai was holding when he died.   


This year’s Kenji Nagai Award recipient, Eine Khine Oo, a 25-year-old reporter with Ecovision Journal, was arrested on June 10, 2008, while photographing a demonstration of Cyclone Nargis victims held outside the United Nations Development Program office in Rangoon‘s Tamwe Township.


Burma’s military regime came under heavy international press criticism for its initial slow and some alleged corrupt response to the natural disaster, which according to United Nations estimates killed more than 84,000 people. Inside the country, press coverage was heavily censored and prominently featured television images of military officials distributing aid to victims.


Eine Khine Oo’s coverage of protests by neglected victims threatened to expose that varnished account and after her arrest military officials accused her of taking photographs with the intent to distribute to media groups based outside the country. One measure of her journalistic dedication, said Zin Linn, was that her clothes were soaked with rain at the time of her arrest.


She was detained without charge for over five months before a Burmese court ruled in a closed-door trial last November that she violated section 505/B of the penal code, which covers charges of incitement. She has since been held incommunicado. Radio Free Asia reporter Ma Su Mon Aye accepted the award, which includes a $1,000 grant, on Eine Khine Oo’s behalf.


“Her arrest was unjust because she was just doing her job,” said Ma Su Mon Aye. “We ask the military to release her as soon as possible.” According to CPJ research, Burma is the third worst jailer of journalists in the world, with at least 14 reporters, including Eine Khine Oo, behind bars as of December 1 last year.


(Reporting from Chiang Mai, Thailand)