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.

AP at the Arab Media Summit

Several AP people took part in last week’s Arab Media Summit in Dubai, a large annual gathering of journalists and news executives from across the Arab world. This year there was substantial interest in user-generated content — how we verify the accuracy of photos and video we find on social networks.

AP Standards Editor Tom Kent talks at the Arab Media Forum in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Tuesday, May 12, 2015. (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili)

My talk at the Arab Media Forum in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Tuesday, May 12, 2015. (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili)

Of course, some news organizations devote little attention to such verification, but most of those we talked to in Dubai understood its importance. News media have to be better than relayers of “whatever’s out there”; viewers look to us to vet what’s true and what’s not. And, ultimately, the truth will win out: false or deceptively labeled images are usually quickly discovered, and the reputations of news organizations that use them are tarnished.

In my presentation, I showed a number of photos that turned out to be false, or labeled in order to mislead. They included a fake photo of the Statue of Liberty with Superstorm Sandy whirling around it and a fake video supposedly showing a young boy pulling a little girl to safety from an attack in Syria.

Our Beirut bureau chief, Zeina Karam, and AP Dubai business writer Aya Batrawy gave a separate session on reporting on the Middle East. Karam spoke about the challenges of reporting on the Syrian civil war while not being able to be in Syria outside of government-controlled territory. Batrawy, who recently filed several stories from Saudi Arabia, said she’s often asked if it’s a hindrance or a help to be a woman journalist in that country. She said being a woman has given her a great advantage because she has access to half the population of women that often male journalists are barred from approaching.

John Daniszewski, AP senior vice president for international news and a speaker last year, joined the AP team at the forum, along with staffers from AP’s commercial operations in London.

Vietnam photos of Henri Huet displayed in France

Henri Huet, one of the most admired photojournalists of the Vietnam War, is being remembered in an exhibit of his work in France.

“Henri Huet: Vietnam 1965-1971” opened last week and will remain on view until May 8 at the Bidouane Tower in St. Malo, the historic walled city on the coast of Brittany, a region where the Vietnamese-born photographer passed much of his childhood.

In six years with The Associated Press, Huet covered more combat than any other photojournalist in Vietnam, sharing danger and hardship with U.S, and South Vietnamese troops.

His work reflected an artist’s appreciation of the landscape of his native country and the plight of its people caught in war.

The risks caught up with Huet in 1967 when he was severely wounded by artillery at Con Thien, a U.S. Marine outpost in northern South Vietnam, and spent months recuperating from leg injuries in a New York hospital. He returned to Vietnam in mid-1968, but a year later AP, worried about his safety, transferred him to Tokyo, an assignment he regarded as unwelcome exile.

Huet was recalled to Vietnam in 1970 to cover the war in Cambodia and Saigon forces’ invasion of Laos in early 1971. During the latter operation, on Feb. 10, 1971, he was killed, at age 43, in the shoot-down of a South Vietnamese Air Force helicopter.

Many of Huet’s photos appear in “Vietnam: The Real War,” AP’s photo history of the conflict that was published in 2013. His work is also represented in a London exhibition of AP’s Vietnam images, on view to May 31 at the headquarters of The Guardian, Kings Place, 90 York Way.

En francais: Exposition photographique d’Henri Huet

Award to AP bureau chief for ‘rich content’ on the crises in West Africa

Krista Larson chats with orphans she interviewed at a Catholic church sheltering more than 800 Muslims in Carnot, Central African Republic who had fled sectarian violence. (AP Photo/Steve Niko)

Krista Larson chats with orphans she interviewed at a Catholic church sheltering more than 800 Muslims in Carnot, Central African Republic who had fled sectarian violence. (AP Photo/Steve Niko)

Krista Larson, West Africa bureau chief for The Associated Press, has won the Deborah Howell Award for Nondeadline Writing from the American Society of News Editors, which announced its annual honors for distinguished reporting and photography today.

Larson, who put herself at risk to chronicle the lives of abandoned orphans, left on their own after family members died of Ebola, also covered the ethnic war in the Central African Republic.

In a first-person report from the Ebola zone in Liberia, Larson wrote about her own fear of the disease and the challenges of covering the health crisis: “The world needs to know what’s happening here: Ebola is obliterating entire neighborhoods, leaving orphaned children with no one to lean on but a tree.”

“These stories had a high degree of difficulty and personal risk, were beautifully written and delivered rich content and context on the depth of the crises in West Africa,” the ASNE judges said. “These types of stories can often seem distant to readers, but the writer made the stories compelling with her depth of reporting and the humanity she brought to her storytelling.”

John Daniszewski, senior managing editor for international news at AP, said: “Krista has a passion to tell stories from West Africa that bring alive to a wider audience the threads of success, sadness and humanity running through the lives of the people of the region, always showing empathy and respect for the dignity of those she covers. We are very pleased that her wonderful work has been recognized in this way.”

Larson, 36, began her AP career as an intern in the Paris bureau in 2001, and worked as a reporter for the news cooperative in Vermont and New Jersey. She was also an editor on the AP’s national and international desks in New York. She has been working in Africa since 2008, first as a supervisory editor at the AP’s Africa regional desk in Johannesburg. In 2012, she became a correspondent based in Dakar, Senegal, and was named bureau chief in 2014.

A native of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, she graduated from Northwestern University and has a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern.

See the full list of winners

Honoring the courage of women photojournalists

FILE - In this April 7, 2005 file photo, Associated Press photographer Anja Niedringhaus poses in Rome. Niedringhaus, 48, was killed and an AP reporter was wounded on April 4, 2014, when an Afghan policeman opened fire while they were sitting in their car in eastern Afghanistan. At least 60 journalists around the world were killed in 2014 while on the job or because of their work, and 44 percent of them were targeted for murder, the Committee to Protect Journalists says. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong, File)

In this April 7, 2005 file photo, Associated Press photographer Anja Niedringhaus poses in Rome. Niedringhaus, 48, was killed and an AP reporter was wounded on April 4, 2014, when an Afghan policeman opened fire while they were sitting in their car in eastern Afghanistan. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)

The International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF) named freelance photographer Heidi Levine as the inaugural winner of the Anja Niedringhaus Courage in Photojournalism Award. The award was created to honor the courage and dedication of Pulitzer Prize-winning AP photographer Anja Niedringhaus, who was killed in Afghanistan in April 2014.

Levine won for her work in Gaza. “Her courage and commitment to the story in Gaza is unwavering. She documents tragic events under dire circumstances while displaying a depth of compassion for the people she encounters,” the jury said in its selection statement.

Niedringhaus joined the AP in 2002, and while based in Geneva worked throughout the Middle East as well as Afghanistan and Pakistan. She was part of the AP team that won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Photography for coverage of Iraq. She also covered nine Olympic Games and other sports events around the world.

“It is encouraging to see Anja’s legacy honored through the amazing and courageous work of Heidi Levine, this year’s inaugural winner,” said Santiago Lyon, vice president and director of photography at AP. “Heidi thoroughly embodies Anja’s spirit and courage.”

The award will be presented to Levine at a ceremony June 25 in Berlin. The Howard G. Buffett Foundation provided funding for the $20,000 prize.

AP photographer Rebecca Blackwell received an Honorable Mention for her coverage of the Central African Republic.

Read the AP news story.

AP investigative reporter offers tips for seeking public records

The Associated Press is committed to fighting for access to information the public has a right to know. AP journalists across the country routinely file Freedom of Information Act requests to uncover critical information that the government would have preferred to keep secret. Washington investigative reporter Jack Gillum recently broke the story that Hillary Clinton used a private email server at her home, and he mined information on Instagram to track Illinois Rep. Aaron Schock’s spending. Gillum frequently draws from records requests to report exclusives. Here, he explains why they should be part of every journalist’s toolkit:

Investigative reporter Jack Gillum (AP photo).

Investigative reporter Jack Gillum (AP photo).

How important to your work are the Freedom of Information Act and open records statutes in the states?
Public records requests have been invaluable in my reporting. FOIA requests to U.S. agencies such as the Federal Aviation Administration recently uncovered that the government knew local police in Ferguson, Missouri, put in place flight restrictions to keep the news media away during demonstrations following the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown.

Other requests can illuminate how government officials conduct their affairs, such as when we found senior U.S. officials using alternative email accounts – raising questions about their obligations to turn over documents to lawmakers and the public.

My request for 911 tapes made during the Newtown, Connecticut, shootings — the subject of a lengthy legal fight — revealed how public safety officials responded to one of the worst school shootings in U.S. history. The records didn’t come easy, with one state prosecutor opposing their release and telling a judge that neither I nor the AP represented the public. The judge ultimately sided with the AP.

How often do you file FOIA requests?
I usually file at least one request a week. That doesn’t include the countless records requests other AP journalists file with governments in the United States and around the world.

What challenges do you encounter in the process?
The federal FOIA is chock full of delays, leaving journalists to wait for information long after the news value of those documents has passed. The U.S. State Department, the defendant in a new FOIA lawsuit by the AP seeking documents about former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, has an average wait time of nearly a year and a half for certain requests.

Public records laws can vary from state to state. Some laws are antiquated and don’t properly address electronic records, leading to excessive charges (25 cents per page) just to view a public official’s emails or her schedules. Other agencies — state, federal or municipal — simply can’t or won’t perform adequate searches, especially with regard to databases and other forms of digital communications.

What advice do you have for other journalists who are learning to navigate the system?
Even if you’re not a lawyer, become an expert on your state’s freedom-of-information laws. Be prepared to fight any denial; don’t “file and forget” the request. And file requests often — not just when you need information on a big, breaking story. After all, governments produce a lot of material that could be newsworthy and important for the public to see.

Become familiar with electronic records and how they’re stored, especially since documents in manila folders are becoming less commonplace. Ask for database “record layouts” – a virtual map of a database that can reveal what information is being kept – and request other forms of electronic communication besides email (like text messages, chat transcripts or Twitter direct messages).

Setting the standards for journalists’ safety

The Associated Press has joined 25 other news organizations and journalism groups in endorsing an unprecedented set of safety standards designed to protect freelance reporters on dangerous assignments.

A document spelling out the safety guidelines, titled “A Call for Global Safety Principles and Practices,” will be discussed this evening by leaders of the organizations during a gathering at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism in New York sponsored by the school’s Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma.

Photographer Visar Kryeziu, left, covers riots in Kosovo's capital Pristina, Tuesday, Jan. 27, 2015. Thousands of protesters clashed with police for hours in the city's streets, leaving a trail of destruction behind them. More than 80 people, including over 50 policemen, were injured, while 160 were detained. (Photo by Petrit Rrahmani)

AP photographer Visar Kryeziu, left, covers riots in Kosovo’s capital Pristina, Tuesday, Jan. 27, 2015. (Photo by Petrit Rrahmani)

Among the seven international safety standards for reporters working in perilous regions, the document says, “We encourage all journalists to complete a recognized news industry first aid course, to carry a suitable first-aid kit and continue their training to stay up-to-date on standards of care and safety both physical and psychological. Before undertaking an assignment in such zones, journalists should seek adequate medical insurance covering them in a conflict zone or area of infectious disease.”

In addition, the document says, “Journalists in active war zones should be aware of the need and importance of having protective ballistic clothing, including armored jackets and helmets.”

Also included in the seven standards for news organizations making assignments in hot zones are these:

  • “News organizations and editors should endeavor to treat journalists and freelancers they use on a regular basis in a similar manner to the way they treat staffers when it comes to issues of safety training, first aid and other safety equipment, and responsibility in the event of injury or kidnap.”
  • “News organizations should not make an assignment with a freelancer in a conflict zone or dangerous environment unless the news organization is prepared to take the same responsibility for the freelancer’s well-being in the event of kidnap or injury as it would a staffer. News organizations have a moral responsibility to support journalists to whom they give assignments in dangerous areas, as long as the freelancer complies with the rules and instructions of the news organization.”

“Over the last two years, killings, imprisonments and abductions of journalists have reached historic highs,” the document notes. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 61 were killed in 2014 and 73 in 2013.

“As journalists from AP face ever-increasing risk to gather the news that the world needs, it is vitally necessary to put in place best practices to keep them as safe as possible to do their jobs,” said AP Senior Vice President and Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll. “We have embraced the values represented by these practices, and we believe they will help set the standard for the industry to protect journalists and ultimately to save lives.’’

AP Senior Managing Editor for International News John Daniszewski (AP Photo).

AP Senior Managing Editor for International News John Daniszewski (AP Photo).

A preamble to the new guidelines was a meeting of foreign news editors last September in Chicago hosted by John Daniszewski, AP’s senior managing editor for international news. “Foreign editors were asking what we could do to strengthen the commitment to safety, especially for freelancers and local journalists, after the horrific killings of journalists in 2014,” Daniszewski said, “and we were concerned that some of the newer organizations did not have organized standards and rules for protecting the journalists that they sent on assignment.”

Reuters investigative reporter David Rohde, who attended the Chicago meeting, shared the results with his colleagues. Reuters Editor in Chief Stephen J. Adler had already launched similar discussions. Steve Coll, dean of Columbia’s journalism school, and Bruce Shapiro, executive director of the Dart Center, also had concerns, which led to other meetings.

As a result, the resulting guidelines were drafted by an international group of freelancers, foreign correspondents, press advocates and news executives.

Daniszewski added: “We are proud of the AP’s deep and ongoing commitment to safety and security of journalists and hope the values represented in these best practices can serve as a guide for all news organizations.”

Besides AP and Reuters, the 26 signatories include the British Broadcasting Corp., Agence France-Presse, Bloomberg News, the Miami Herald, GlobalPost, the Committee to Protect Journalists, the Overseas Press Club, USA Today and Reporters Without Borders.

A video of this evening’s discussion is expected to be available within a few days on the Dart Center’s website.

AP’s top editor: ‘Is the story worth the risk?’

In a time of increasing threats to journalists worldwide, Associated Press Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll said that news organizations need to carefully weigh the risks of reporting against journalists’ passion for telling untold stories.

Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, Kathleen Carroll, executive editor for the Associated Press, Douglas Frantz, U.S. assistant secretary of state for public affairs and moderator Diane Woodruff take part in a discussion on the growing threats to journalists worldwide, the role of freelancers and local reporters, and the rise of hostage taking at the Newseum in Washington Feb. 4, 2015.   (AP Photo/Molly Riley)

Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists,
Kathleen Carroll, executive editor for the Associated Press, Douglas Frantz, U.S. assistant secretary of state for public affairs and moderator Judy Woodruff take part in a discussion on the growing threats to journalists worldwide, at the Newseum in Washington Feb. 4, 2015. (AP Photo/Molly Riley)

During a wide-ranging discussion Feb. 4 at the Newseum in Washington, about the dangers of reporting in conflict zones, risks to freelance journalists and responsibilities for news organizations and governments, Carroll said: “I think the real question for all of us, as news consumers and as news employers, is: ‘Is the story worth the risk?’ And that’s a question we often ask ourselves both in the field and back at the home office. And the answer is sometimes, ‘no.’”

The panel, moderated by Judy Woodruff, co-anchor and managing editor of PBS “NewsHour,” also included Douglas Frantz, U.S. secretary of state for public affairs, and Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. The panel followed a separate conversation with Diane Foley, mother of freelance journalist James Foley, who was beheaded by Islamic State militants in 2014, and Debra Tice, mother of missing freelance journalist Austin Tice.

A new set of safety guidelines for freelancers and news organizations that hire freelancers will be unveiled at Columbia University next week, Carroll said, adding that a number of organizations have been involved in their development, including CPJ, AP, Reuters, AFP and others.

In closing, Carroll called on news consumers to care: “This is work that people are doing at great risk to educate you, so give a damn. Read the paper, read on your tablet, engage in the news, be a citizen of the world. Make some effort to understand what it is that these people are taking great risks to bring you.”

Watch a video replay of the event.

What’s the deal with Davos?

DAVOS, Switzerland — It’s hard to think of any other event quite like the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting here in the Swiss Alps. The U.N. General Assembly draws more world leaders. The Oscars attract more celebrities. But nothing brings together quite this combination of corporate executives, academics, philanthropists and media.

Participants walk in the main entrance hall of the Congress Center the day before the opening of the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2015. The world's financial and political elite will head this week to the Swiss Alps for 2015's gathering of the World Economic Forum at the Swiss ski resort of Davos. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)

Participants walk in the main entrance hall of the Congress Center the day before the opening of the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2015. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)

It began in 1971 as a two-week meeting designed to improve European management. Some 450 executives attended. It has grown to something both grander and broader, with 2,500 attendees and a sweeping motto: “Committed to improving the state of the world.” No small task.

To a considerable extent they all come because they all come. Some critics dismiss the meetings as a talk shop or a gathering of elites who fly pretty high above the world most people live in, the one they are committed to improving.

Yet, for all that, interesting things are often said here and occasionally news is broken here. One year, AP Chief Switzerland Correspondent John Heilprin scooped the world on a new security policy in which the United States said that protecting corporate supply chains was now as important as the longtime job of guarding shipping lanes. How did he get the scoop? The then-Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano was sent to Davos with half a dozen copies of the new directive signed personally by President Barack Obama. They were intended for other world leaders. But it’s hard to actually catch up with a world leader here, even though there are usually about 40 at least passing through. So John seized the moment and cajoled one of those documents out of an aide.

Some news organizations send small armies to cover Davos. One, for example, takes over the town’s library for its operations. AP takes a different approach. A small but hearty band of journalists covers all formats. It’s a great place to snag newsmakers for video or text. Pan Pylas, an AP business reporter here from London, recalls standing feet from actor Matt Damon one moment and then being quick marched by his editors (well, me actually) to a private briefing with the president of Iran.

“It’s unusual to get so many newsmakers and thought leaders all together in a very small place, when they are unusually accessible and a little bit more relaxed than usual,” Heilprin said. “For a reporter, the first challenge is to recognize them all. The second is to quickly think of a good question when one passes by.”

British Prime Minister David Cameron and  rock star Bono speak during the panel discussion  "The Post-2015 Goals: Inspiring a New Generation to Act", the fifth annual Associated Press debate, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Friday, Jan. 24, 2014.  (AP Photo/Michel Euler)

British Prime Minister David Cameron and rock star Bono speak during the panel discussion “The Post-2015 Goals: Inspiring a New Generation to Act,” the fifth annual Associated Press debate, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Friday, Jan. 24, 2014. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)

The highlight of our Davos week is the annual AP Davos debate, the brainchild of Director of Global Video News Sandy MacIntyre and Senior Field Producer Masha McPherson. Working with the Davos organizers, we turn one of the panel discussions into a broadcast and send it to our 700 broadcast clients and hundreds of digital news outlets.

We’ve had some memorable moments. Like the time Prime Minister David Cameron asked Bono to help craft a message for the fight on global poverty. Or when the Italian finance minister got angry because we asked about a bank scandal in Siena instead of the high-minded global financial questions he was looking for. Our Italian customers were very happy.

But that’s Davos. If you remember why you’re here, as a journalist, you can always find a story.

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.