Documentary commends Cyclone Nargis journalists

PBS’s “Wide Angle” aired “Eyes of the Storm” last week, a documentary on Cyclone Nargis and its aftermath. Like Anders Ostergaard’s recent film “Burma VJ” on citizen reporters during the monk-led protests in 2007, which we wrote about in April, “Wide Angle” contrasts independent reports filmed at great risk with the junta’s state media claims that aid was under control. 

Independent journalists like “Zorro” smuggled footage from makeshift villages through the exile media group Democratic Voice of Burma to London-based journalists Evan Williams and Siobhan Sinnerton. Some on the ground had no journalism experience.

“How is this possibly going to result in documentary footage when we’re having to show where the ‘on’ button is?” Sinnerton worried at the start of the project. But the results seen here, and in the journalists’ own documentary for the U.K.’s Channel 4 “Dispatches” program, are powerful.

Zorro can’t reveal his real name due to the risk of arrest and torture, “Wide Angle” reports. Burmese aid workers were told to inform police and security agents–stationed in every village–of anyone taking pictures, Williams tells “Wide Angle.” In an interview with the program, Zorro says:

The scariest moments and when I suffered the most, psychologically, is when I was questioning children or taking photos in the village or when I was asleep, and suddenly I’d hear the sound of a boat in the river. I’d wake up and become very frightened … I worried the soldiers would call out my name, point a gun at my head, and arrest me. I thought to myself, what would I do?

As an added reminder of the dangers, the program highlights the fate of three journalists on CPJ’s 2008 imprisoned list. Zarganar (whose real name is Maung Thura), Eine Khine Oo and Kyaw Kyaw Thant are now serving prison terms for helping and reporting on relief work. A slideshow on the journalists and others imprisoned for working with cyclone victims is on the PBS Web site.

CPJ’s 2008 report on undercover reporters, “Burma’s Firewall Fighters,” is available with other Burma coverage on the CPJ Web site.