Khmer Broadcaster Wins Burke Award for Distinguished Journalism

The Broadcasting Board of Governors has granted Sok Ratha of the Khmer service the 2006 David W. Burke Distinguished Journalism Award in recognition of his groundbreaking reports from outlying regions of Cambodia, often filed at great risk to his own safety.

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Khmer Broadcaster Sok Ratha Wins Burke Award for Distinguished JournalismWASHINGTON, May 9—BBG Governors Blanquita Walsh Cullum and Edward Kaufman chose Burke Award recipients Luis Ramirez of the Voice of America for his daring reports from North Korea and the Tashkent, the Uzbekistan bureau of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty for their coverage of the massacre of protestors in Andijon, and Sok Ratha of RFA to receive the prize.

Named for BBG founding chairman David W. Burke, the awards go each year to “U.S. international broadcasters who demonstrate exceptional performance and courage, including bravery and extreme hardship.” Burke is a former chairman of CBS News and former executive vice president of ABC News.

In presenting the award, Kaufman described Sok Ratha as a “uniquely dedicated journalist who has worked tirelessly to report the truth, even and especially those truths that powerful Cambodian interests would most like to hide—his commitment to his work is truly unflinching.”

In her remarks, Cullum said it had been a privilege for her to present Sok Ratha to a group of American student journalists in New York as a unique role model.

“While this award specifically recognizes Sok Ratha for his courageous reporting from the remote Cambodian province of Rattanakiri, Sok Ratha has tirelessly lived up to the highest standards of journalism—leading by example, often at great risk to his own safety and security,” RFA President Libby Liu said.

“More than 100 years ago, the American journalist Finley Peter Dunne quipped that ‘the job of the newspaper is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.’ Dunne almost certainly couldn’t have imagined how his words might apply more than a century later to a young Cambodian broadcaster from Rattanakiri, but Sok Ratha has made afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted his life’s work—and we are all the richer for it,” Liu said.

Hired as election stringer
Sok Ratha began working for Radio Free Asia during Cambodia’s 2003 national elections, as a temporary stringer based in Rattanakiri. He subsequently discovered Montagnard refugees—ethnic minority people from Vietnam—hiding in the thick jungle forests of Rattanakiri and the neighboring province of Mondulkiri. He was the first reporter to expose their plight, eventually drawing intervention by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

Sok Ratha returned repeatedly to the malaria-infested jungles where the Montagnards had made camp, documenting their plight in photos and recorded interviews that made their existence impossible even for the Cambodian authorities to deny or ignore. A year after he began reporting on the Montagnards, Sok Ratha was arrested along with another reporter as they documented the travels of a new group of 17 Montagnards attempting to reach safe haven.

In 2005, Sok Ratha turned to covering other pressing issues in Rattanakiri such as illegal logging, judicial corruption, and land grabs. Last September, as he attempted to report on illegal logging involving military authorities, he was run down by a truck driven by a military official.

He was dragged 100 meters but escaped serious injury. He has declined several offers from RFA to relocate in the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, choosing to remain with his family in Rattanakiri.

“In this often less-than-brave new world of contemporary media, Sok Ratha is a true investigative reporter—one of those, in the words of British journalist John Pilger, ‘who push back screens, peer behind facades, lift rocks... the men and women whose disrespect for authoritarianism has allowed them to alert their readers to vital hidden truths,’” Liu said.

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