22 years a slave: AP takes readers on emotional journey home

The Associated Press today published a gripping tale of the life of Myint Naing, one of hundreds of former slaves rescued and returned home after a yearlong AP investigation exposed extreme labor abuses in Southeast Asia’s seafood industry.

In this May 16, 2015 photo, former slave fisherman Myint Naing, center, hugs his niece Kyi Wai Hnin, right, and nephew Kyaw Min Tun following his return to his village in Mon State, Myanmar. Myint, 40, is among hundreds of former slave fishermen who returned to Myanmar following an Associated Press investigation into the use of forced labor in Southeast Asia's seafood industry. (AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe)

In this May 16, 2015 photo, former slave fisherman Myint Naing, center, hugs his niece Kyi Wai Hnin, right, and nephew Kyaw Min Tun following his return to his village in Mon State, Myanmar. Myint, 40, is among hundreds of former slave fishermen who returned to Myanmar following an Associated Press investigation into the use of forced labor in Southeast Asia’s seafood industry. (AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe)

AP documented how slave-caught fish was shipped from Indonesia to Thailand. It can then be exported to the United States and find its way to the supply chains of supermarkets and distributors, including Wal-Mart, Sysco and Kroger, and pet food brands, such as Fancy Feast, Meow Mix and Iams. The companies have all said they strongly condemn labor abuse and are taking steps to prevent it.

To highlight the human side of the story, Indonesia-based reporter Margie Mason, who has worked as an AP correspondent in Asia for the past 12 years, sought the assistance of her colleagues and interviewed more than 340 former slaves.

“We had a unique opportunity because the Indonesian government was providing shelter to hundreds of newly rescued Burmese, Cambodian and Laotian former slaves. We knew that once they went home they would scatter and it would be very hard to follow up,” Mason said. “We typed up questionnaires in three languages, asking everything from what boats they were on to whether they were beaten or witnessed anyone being killed. I, along with my colleagues Robin McDowell and Esther Htusan, have interviewed more than 70 men face-to-face.”

AP reporter Margie Mason (AP Photo).

AP reporter Margie Mason (AP Photo).

Choosing a single story to tell, among many heartbreaking ones, was the biggest challenge.

“Most of these men had not been in touch with their families for years and had no idea what they would find when they got home. The story had to be strong enough to stand on its own regardless of the ending,” Mason said. “Myint’s story is like a movie. The Thai seafood industry stole 22 years of his life. He thought he was never going home. He had no idea if his family was still in his old village or if his mother was even alive. So, to have such an amazing reunion just a day after he got back, was really incredible.”

International Enterprise Editor Mary Rajkumar, who was the editor on the investigation, added: “These stories really show why in-depth international journalism matters, and why it’s so important to keep doing it. In this day and age, it’s remarkable that journalism helped to free hundreds of slaves. But it’s  also a humbling reminder of how much more we need to do.”

AP’s initial report generated significant interest around the world and AP reporters described what they found to numerous media outlets, including HuffingtonPostLive’s “World Brief,PRI’s “The World,” NPR’s “Morning Edition,” the PBS NewsHour podcast “Shortwave,” and WNYC’s “The Leonard Lopate Show.”

Read the AP story and explore the interactive report, which features video of Myint’s emotional reunion.

A scoop that surprised the experts

The following memo to AP staff from Senior Managing Editor Mike Oreskes describes how an environmental exclusive came together through the reporting of a European correspondent, joined by AP colleagues in Asia:

A scoop tells readers something they didn’t know. AP’s Karl Ritter went further and broke news so exclusive that even experts in the field were surprised. His story, this week’s Beat of the Week, disclosed how $1 billion in climate-change financing under a U.N.-led program was being used to build coal-fired power plants in Indonesia.

In this Oct. 18 , 2014 photo, fishing boat passes near a fired coal power plant on the river in Cirebon. The coal-fired power plant in Cirebon came online two years ago despite years of protests from environmentalists and villagers who say the plant is polluting coastal waters, killing off fish and crabs.  (AP Photo/Achmad Ibrahim)

In this Oct. 18 , 2014 photo, fishing boat passes near a fired coal power plant on the river in Cirebon. The coal-fired power plant in Cirebon came online two years ago despite years of protests from environmentalists and villagers who say the plant is polluting coastal waters, killing off fish and crabs. (AP Photo/Achmad Ibrahim)

The story broke as key players in the climate change community were gathering for a summit in Peru, and they reacted with surprise and concern. Coal, after all, is a major source of carbon pollution.

Even U.N. climate chief Christiana Figueres acknowledged she was unaware that Japan was building coal plants with climate money, until she saw AP’s story. “There is no argument for that,” she told Ritter. “Unabated coal has no room in the future energy system.”

Ritter, the AP’s bureau chief in Stockholm, started with a simple goal. “I wanted to investigate where climate finance money was going because there didn’t seem to be any accountability in the UN system,” he says.

He began by turning to a non-governmental organization that tries to keep track of the scores of channels of climate finance, which is money flowing from rich to poor countries as a way to tackle global warming. Searching the group’s database, he found that Japan had provided funding for the biggest projects so far.

Turning next to the U.N. climate secretariat, he located an annex listing Japanese climate finance projects reported to the UN in 2010-2012. That’s where he spotted the “thermal” power plants in Indonesia.

When he realized they were coal-fired power plants, he thought there must be some mistake. He went back to the NGO and asked if they had any idea how coal plants could get on the list. They, too, thought there must be a mistake: “That can’t be right,” the NGO representative said.

“That’s when I realized we had a story,” Ritter says. “If even NGOs dedicated to tracking climate finance didn’t know about these plants, how would anyone else?”

He started researching the plants in question and found reports from Indonesia saying villagers near the Cirebon plant had protested, in vain, plans to build it.

Margie Mason in Jakarta then led a cross-format team that went to Cirebon in September. Villagers told her that since the plant was built in 2012 their catches of crab, mussels and shrimp had dwindled. Plant officials denied any environmental problems, though they acknowledged there may have been some inconvenience to local fishermen.

Next, Ritter needed Japan’s response. How did officials there justify counting Cirebon and two other plants in Indonesia as climate finance at a time when other developed countries were restricting public money for such projects, precisely because of their high emissions?

Yuri Kageyama and Ken Moritsugu pressed reluctant Japanese officials for comment. In the week before the climate conference in Lima, Moritsugu secured interviews with Japanese officials who not only defended the plants but said Japan will keep counting such projects as climate finance in the UN climate negotiations.

The story played prominently on abcnews.com, MSN News and Huffington Post, among others. Newsweek did its own piece on AP’s scoop.

The scoop rippled through the U.N. climate talks. Environmental groups at the talks demanded that  the Green Climate Fund exclude coal. Climate activists staged a protest against Japan’s coal funding at the conference venue. And the U.N. climate secretariat called a news conference to showcase its efforts to improve the rules governing climate finance.

“We need to define what is climate finance and what is not,”  said Seyni Nafo on the U.N. climate agency’s Standing Committee on Finance.

For a scoop that informed us all and really got the attention of the experts, Ritter wins Beat of the Week and this week’s $500 prize.

Bangkok bureau chief named Journalist of the Year in Asia

The Society of Publishers in Asia named The Associated Press’ Bangkok Bureau Chief Todd Pitman Journalist of the Year, in recognition of his work over the past 12 months, including gripping stories from Typhoon Haiyan and moving coverage of the travails of the Rohingya in Myanmar.

Todd Pitman (AP photo)

Todd Pitman (AP photo)

He accepted the award at the SOPA annual dinner June 11 in Hong Kong.

Pitman’s work “represents the pinnacle of our profession and of our ambitions,” said Ted Anthony, AP’s news director in Asia, in a note to staff.

Earlier this year Pitman also received the Joe and Laurie Dine Citation from the Overseas Press Club of America for his reporting on the massacre in Myanmar.

Read more of his work.

Pausing to see the world

In fast-paced Tokyo, a pause will be rewarded with “A View of Daily Life” around the world.

A man walks in front of the entrance to the AP photo exhibition at the Gyoko-dori Underground Gallery in Tokyo, Thursday, Jan. 9, 2014. (AP Photo/Shizuo Kambayashi)

A man walks in front of the entrance to the AP photo exhibition at the Gyoko-dori Underground Gallery in Tokyo, Thursday, Jan. 9, 2014. (AP Photo/Shizuo Kambayashi)

“A View of Daily Life” is a display of Associated Press photos from 31 countries newly installed in Gyoko-dori Underground Gallery, located in Marunouchi, one of Tokyo’s central business and entertainment hubs.

The Japanese paper Sankei Express has reported on the exhibit, which runs through April 22. Admission is free.

The new exhibit follows another international photo show that AP presented in the gallery in 2012-2013.

A man looks at a photograph at the AP Photo exhibition at Tokyo Station gallery in Tokyo, Thursday, Jan. 9, 2014. (AP Photo/Shizuo Kambayashi)

A man looks at a photograph at the AP photo exhibition at the Gyoko-dori Underground Gallery gallery in Tokyo, Thursday, Jan. 9, 2014. (AP Photo/Shizuo Kambayashi)

Covering the monster typhoon

Associated Press journalists covering the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines are now living and working in two locations – the meeting room in a hotel that was largely destroyed and a spot at Tacloban’s seaside airport  enclosed by a large party tent.

Ten days after the devastating storm blew through, Manila-based AP reporter Jim Gomez recounts the scene that he and colleagues first encountered:

An aerial image taken from a Philippine Air Force helicopter shows the devastation of the first landfall by typhoon Haiyan in Guiuan, Eastern Samar province, central Philippines Monday, Nov. 11, 2013. (AP Photo/Bullit Marquez)

An aerial image taken from a Philippine Air Force helicopter shows the devastation of the first landfall by typhoon Haiyan in Guiuan, Eastern Samar province, central Philippines Monday, Nov. 11, 2013. (AP Photo/Bullit Marquez)

Covering the horrific death and devastation wrought by Typhoon Haiyan in Tacloban, a lively central Philippine city of more than 200,000 people on Leyte island, southeast of Manila, was like reporting in a war zone.

Power, transport, fuel, food, water and telephones were snuffed out by one of the most ferocious storms on record.

In knocking out all forms of communications, Haiyan prevented news of the massive death toll and devastation from rapidly filtering out beyond the island. There was a fleeting mention  by a Manila aviation official of Tacloban’s airport being ruined by storm surges. The government put the overall death toll in the central Philippines at 3 or 4. Media outfits began speculating how the country was spared from serious damage despite the monster storm’s deadly profile.

However, the next morning, when the same aviation official told news organizations  that at least 100 people perished in Tacloban alone, AP staffers sprang into action. Video journalist Kiko Rosario and his  assistant, Vicente Gonzales; photographers Bullit Marquez and Aaron Favila and I rushed to the Villamor Air Base in Manila, where air force C-130 aircraft were taking off to transport the first  disaster-response teams and food packs to the battered city. Favila got to Villamor first, quickly looked for the manifest and listed our names – a crucial action since throngs of foreign and local journalists would converge later at the air base to fight for about a dozen seats allotted to media. All commercial flights were suspended.

After landing at Tacloban’s ruined airport,  Kiko, Bullit and Aaron quickly spread out to capture the first images of the devastation as night approached. They climbed to the top of the airport tower – its glass shattered – and took in flattened and devastated villages as far as their eyes could  see.

The airport parking lot was a muddy wasteland of upturned cars, cargo trolleys, aviation equipment and jagged tin roofs. Walking just a few blocks away, we saw bodies on roadsides, covered by tin roofs, sodden bedsheets and pieces of wood. Stunned survivors huddled together on sidewalks near corpses, covering their noses. They asked for food and water but we had none.

One lady said she was given biscuits by friends but would not eat them because she had no water. Beyond the road, she pointed to a clearing that I thought was a barren farm but turned out to be a crowded coastal village, where her house once stood, until a wall of water surged from the sea the morning the typhoon hit and swept away everything.

We  set up a makeshift office outside a low-slung, damaged building, where a few airport controllers and army troops temporarily operated. The building attracted journalists because it was the only structure in the entire airport with a light bulb on. A diesel generator supplied power. Connecting to the power line, the AP team sent out the first images and stories through laptops hooked to satellite phones.

Dinner was a piece of salty cracker topped with a small slice of sardines, courtesy of fellow journalists from another news outfit. Bed for me was a white plastic chair, in which  I tried to sleep. The stench of bodies stacked in a nearby chapel kept me awake all night.

Without car, fuel and information – the city government had virtually collapsed – it was hard to plan the next day’s  coverage. Photographers hiked  several kilometers to  town and hard-hit villages. Coordinating the movement of AP staff became a challenge without functioning telephones, so staffers were basically on their own, incommunicado, once they left our airport base. Many survivors later found their way through the airport’s broken perimeter fences and wandered near our workplaces, later competing for sleeping spaces.

There was no meal at all on the second day. Some air force personnel handed us a couple of  water bottles and later allowed us to use a hand-operated water pump that was dangerously located in the middle of a heap of sharp tin debris and rocks. We washed ourselves there.

The hardest moments were interviewing the survivors, who were  visibly traumatized. Many had missing loved ones, or they were struggling to care for injured or sick relatives and wanted to escape Tacloban but couldn’t. Most of the survivors I interviewed had not had a meal for days. Many waited in long lines outside the airport, hoping to get a flight out on military relief aircraft.

Once, while reading my notes to my colleague Todd Pitman, who was typing them in his laptop for transmission later to the Manila desk. I got overwhelmed and could not go on when I was describing how a father was embracing his kids and wife during a downpour on the tarmac. Huddled close together, I saw that they were all crying quietly. The wife and kids were to board a C-130 shortly and the father decided to stay home to guard their damaged home.

At another time we were interviewing a woman, who was with her children and other relatives. They had waited with the huge crowd for days but could not get seats in one of the outbound military planes amid the bedlam. She worried for her family and begged us for help, tears streaming down her face.