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The courage of clandestine video journalists

On 27 September 2007, the international community was shocked to see the video clip of Kenji Nagai, a Japanese video journalist, shot dead by a Burmese soldier on the streets of Rangoon. For weeks, the brutal death of this journalist was broadcast repeatedly, reminding us of the danger faced by journalists reporting the news.

This famous clip was clandestinely filmed from a rooftop by a young Burmese video journalist (VJ) working for Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB). He was able to send the clip almost immediately via a portable satellite to his headquarters in Oslo, norway. Within two hours, the incident went global, with TV news networks splashing their news bulletins with this image.

Meanwhile the Burmese junta leaders tried in vain to figure out how the clip penetrated their solid wall of censorship.

The shooting and attacking of journalists and VJs is not restricted to Burma.

Video clips and photos taken by amateurs who were in the right place at the right time take us behind the walls of these fortified countries, by using their camera phones or mini video cameras to record events. However, to film secretly and report news professionally undercover in a country controlled by one of the world’s most brutal military juntas is a different story.

As the video clip of Nagai demonstrated, it required a well-trained journalist who can capture the news without being captured himself. Video journalists now fill the important gap, replacing a news vacuum behind the iron curtain of dictatorship. DVB trains video journalists before they go into the field undetected and unrecognised, even by their colleagues.

To do their jobs, they are armed with mini video cameras, satellite phones and other new media technology. In addition, they are also trained to survive in hostile environments. However, even minor carelessness could put one’s own life and those of others in jeopardy. A young female DVB journalist was recently jailed in Burma for 27 years for simply reporting the news.

Exiled journalist communities from Iran, Zimbabwe, Sri Lanka, Gambia, North Korea, Tibet, Tunisia, Belarus and Uzbekistan are now sharing each other’s experience. Facing the same restrictions at home – news bans and no access to information – these exiled communities are following in the footsteps of their Burmese colleagues, who are well-versed in using new media technologies, coupled with personal versatility to get fresh news out.

Iranian journalists have benefited from the experience of Burmese VJs, who were featured in the 2010 Oscar-nominated documentary, Burma VJ. With the protests following the disputed Iran elections in 2009, the internet was flooded with video clips taken by mobile phones and mini video cameras.

VJs are now flourishing in many countries. Underground reporters inside North Korea have also increased. Using smuggled phones from China, they report the news to exiled radio stations based in China and South Korea. Underground journalists from Zimbabwe managed to smuggle video clips and news reports out of the country after Mugabe’s government censured any reporting of the news.

International news organisations are far less likely to put their own journalists in such jeopardy, and over the coming decade, the VJ will become a vital cog in the 24/7 newsreel, supplying news and images to publishers, broadcasters and exiled communities alike.

The international community owes a lot to these courageous and faceless journalists, who constantly risk their lives to report the news.

Kavi Chongkittavorn is a respected journalist and current chair of the Southeast Asian Press Alliance in Bangkok. With more than twenty years experience reporting on human rights and press freedom issues in Southeast Asia, he writes on the everyday struggles of clandestine journalists who dare to report the news in countries afflicted by censorship. Using new media technologies such as camera phones, these brave journalists bring the news to the outside world. On World Press Freedom Day, 2010, Kavi writes for WAN-IFRA, the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers.


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