Happy Halloween (or All Hallows Eve). Today we’re going to wrap up our exploration journalists who have been killed while documenting something or in retaliation to what they were reporting on. I certainly have learned a lot in researching the lives and stories of the journalists featured. There are, obviously, many more to be told so hopefully you’re inspired to research some of your own. Today we’ll look at the story of a journalist killed while covering the Saffron Revolution in Burma (also called Myanmar) in 2007.
This week’s saint is Kenji Nagai (長井 健司).
Kenji Nagai was born on August 27, 1957. He grew up in Imabari, Ehime, Japan. After graduating from Tokyo Keizai University he spent a year studying in the United States. When Kenji Nagai returned to Japan he began working as a freelance journalist. He worked as a contract photojournalist for the Tokyo AFP (Agence France-Presse) News. He would often travel to very dangerous places in order to capture the stories he wanted to tell, often about war and it’s effects. Kenji Nagai traveled and worked in countries such as: Afghanistan, Cambodia, the Palestinian territories, and Iraq. Many of Kenji Nagai’s collegues and friends recall him saying, “These are places no one wants to go to, but someone has to go.”
In September, 2007 Kenji Nagai traveled to Burma to capture the story of non-violent protests and pro-democracy demonstrations of Buddhist monks in Burma. The movement was called the Saffron Revolution because of the color of the monks robes who filled the streets. The protests arose out of an environment of increasing economic distress in Burma. The government seemed to be spending a disproportionate amount of money on its military while many of its citizens could barely meet their basic needs. According to a report by the UN, one out of every three children in Burma were chronically malnourished and government spending on health and education was among the lowest anywhere in the world. When the prices of basic commodities like rice, eggs and cooking oil, began to rise significantly many people began protesting the apparent gap in lifestyles. When the military junta began to crack down on protests, more and more protests sprang up. Initially the protests had been led by students and activists but the countries Buddhist monks joined in the protests on September 18, 2007. On September 25, Kenji arrived in Burma and began covering the protests. The next day, September 26, the Burmese government began a violent crackdown against the protestors. The military troops surrounded the famous Shwedagon Pagoda and begain attacking a group of 700 protestors with batons and tear gas. It was reported that nearly 300 people were detained and 4 were killed on the first day of the crackdown.
The next day, September 27, the Burmese military began raiding monasteries across the country to try and quiet the protests by arresting more the 700 monks. In response, there were nearly 50,000 protestors taking to the streets in Yangon. Kenji Nagai was in Yangon covering the military crackdown on monks and another pagoda. The government reportedly gave the people 10 minutes to disperse. Around 3pm all cell phone service was reportedly cut which coincided with the time that Burmese military forces begin violently attacking and firing on monks protesting in downtown Yangon. Kenji Nagai was shot and killed during this offensive by the military. Officially, the Burmese military said he was hit by a stray bullet. But, photographs were taken that tell a different story. In the span of about three captured images you can see Kenji Nagai shot on the ground still filming with his camera as a Burmese military solider comes towards him with a gun, followed by an image of him raising his camera with the solider coming even closer and the final image showing him obviously dead and his hands by his sides. The photography who captured the photos would eventually win a Pulitzer Prize for taking the risky photos.
An autopsy reveled that Kenji Nagai was shot by a bullet that pierced through his heart and back. Other witnesses reported seeing Kenji Nagai being intentionally shot for filming the actions of the Burmese military during the protest. Later a video would surface that showed video of the solider shoving Kenji Nagai to the ground and shooting him through the heart, at point-blank range.