Posted in Behind the News

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

, by Erin Madigan White

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.

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.”

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.”

“These stories really show why in-depth international journalism matters, and why it’s so important to keep doing it. ” Mary Rajkumar International Enterprise Editor

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.