Bangkok, April 26, 2023–More than 15 years after Japanese photojournalist Kenji Nagai was shot and killed on the streets of Yangon, Myanmar, while filming the 2007 Saffron Revolution political protests, the camera he held at the time of his death has finally been returned to his family.
At a press conference Wednesday, April 26, at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand, Democratic Voice of Burma editor-in-chief and CPJ International Press Freedom Award winner Aye Chan Naing handed the camera to Nagai’s sister Noriko Ogawa, who has long sought its return from Myanmar authorities and traveled from Japan for the event.
DVB gained access to the camera from an undisclosed source in Yangon and spirited it across the Myanmar-Thailand border after the February 2021 military coup and subsequent clampdown on the press, according to Aye Chan Naing. Nagai’s last footage contained in the camera was shown at the press conference.
CPJ Senior Southeast Asia Representative Shawn W. Crispin was invited by DVB and Nagai’s family to speak at the event, where he addressed Nagai’s still-unresolved killing and more broadly the continued killing of journalists with impunity in Myanmar.
Read Crispin’s remarks below:
We’re here today to honor the memory of fallen Japanese journalist Kenji Nagai, a courageous reporter who tragically lost his life in pursuit of the news.
The return to his family of the camera he was using to report when he was shot and murdered in the streets of Yangon while covering political protests is long overdue—over 15 years overdue.
DVB should be commended for its dogged journalistic pursuit of the camera and the exceptional risks it has taken to return it to Kenji’s family.
But ultimately, today’s event is an important and timely reminder that Myanmar’s military has and continues to kill journalists with impunity, and that the killings won’t stop until Kenji’s murder receives full justice—from the foot soldier who pulled the trigger to any commanders who gave shoot-to-kill orders to the military leaders who orchestrated the lethal repression.
The grotesque military mindset behind these killings is that with time they will be forgotten and thus forever unresolved. But may the recovery of Kenji’s camera and the moving personal footage it contains revive the call for justice and remind the world of the brutality and lies that have long characterized Myanmar’s military rule.
Then as now, killing with impunity is deeply engrained in the Myanmar military’s DNA and until the soldiers and their commanders responsible for Kenji’s murder are brought to account in court, if not locally than internationally, then the lethal silencing of journalists will endure.
Myanmar authorities have long sought to whitewash the circumstances of Kenji’s killing, claiming he was shot by an unknown shooter from a long distance and not by a soldier at point-blank range—as various media reports, including DVB’s on-the-spot footage of the fateful event, show was the case.
The Myanmar soldier who pulled the trigger has not been identified nor held to account for his crime against a working journalist, a killing that aimed to black out news reporting of the military’s lethal repression of anti-military street protestors involved in the then so-called Saffron Revolution.
The Japanese government, meanwhile, has after initial pursuit cynically allowed the case to go cold and forgotten over the years, and has implicitly helped to cover up the circumstances of Kenji’s murder by not publicly revealing the results of its own internal autopsy which reports indicate contradicts Myanmar’s official account.
An Asahi Shimbun report quoting a recently retired Japanese government pathologist, who was silenced while in government service but outspoken since, indicate Kenji was killed from a bullet at point-blank range and not by long-distance sniper fire, giving the lie to Myanmar’s official version of events.
Tokyo has shamefully prioritized maintaining good diplomatic relations and strong commercial ties with Myanmar’s generals over pursuing justice for Kenji’s murder.
That’s an important subtext to today’s event that hopefully the Japanese government will seek to reverse, particularly as the current military rulers continue to harass and target independent Japanese reporters.
While the return of the camera and the last shot footage it contains will hopefully bring a measure of closure to Kenji’s long-suffering family, who again have futilely sought the camera’s return from Myanmar authorities for over 15 years—it does nothing in respect to achieving justice for his death.
The military regime responsible for Kenji’s murder has been reincarnated in the junta government that is now terrorizing, shuttering, and literally killing Myanmar’s independent journalists and media outlets.
CPJ’s research shows at least four local journalists have been killed with impunity since coup-maker generals seized power from an elected government in February 2021.
Myanmar ranked eighth on CPJ’s 2022 Impunity Index, a ranking of countries worldwide where the killers of journalists go free. It marked the first time Myanmar appeared on our index, underscoring the severity of Myanmar’s post-coup press freedom crisis.
CPJ reporting shows several other reporters have been tortured while in military custody. And dozens are now languishing behind bars on trumped-up and bogus anti-state charges, including a handful of intrepid DVB reporters.
Make no mistake, Myanmar’s generals will continue to harass, jail, and kill media members as long as they feel they can get it away with it.
But may they be reminded today that the world hasn’t forgotten about Kenji’s murder at the military’s hands, nor will it give the regime a pass for the crimes it’s committing now, every day, against the independent journalists who literally risk life and limb to report the news.
The world is watching and CPJ will continue to call for justice until Myanmar’s journalist-killing soldiers are put where they belong, behind bars in the same prisons they now use to jail and silence the free press.
Thank you for the opportunity to participate in today’s event.
[Editor’s note: This article has been updated to correct the date of the press conference.]