Posted in Behind the News

Enslaved fishermen freed: How we got that story

, by Lauren Easton

A team of AP journalists yesterday received the gold award in the ninth annual Barlett & Steele Awards for Investigative Business Journalism.

Margie Mason, Robin McDowell, Esther Htusan and Martha Mendoza spent over a year investigating Thailand’s multi-billion dollar fishing industry, built on the backs of forced labor. Their reporting freed more than 2,000 slaves and connected slave-caught seafood to U.S. supermarkets, retailers and major pet food brands.

After months of networking, poring over documents and chasing down tips and leads, Mason learned that stories of abuse were starting to filter out from Benjina, a little-known island village in the far eastern waters of Indonesia. But because no outsiders had visited, it was impossible to know just how bad conditions were.

The journalists offered additional details to the Donald W. Reynolds National Center for Business Journalism, which presented the awards in Phoenix, about the challenges and dangers they faced in reporting the story:

In November 2014, McDowell arrived to find men locked in a cage and a company graveyard filled with dozens of fishermen buried under fake Thai names. After realizing there were hundreds of captive slaves on the island, most of them from Myanmar, she called in Burmese reporter Esther Htusan from Yangon for help.
Once the men understood the AP was there to tell their stories, they opened up. A few wiped tears as they spoke. Some chased after the journalists on dusty paths, shoving pieces of paper into their hands with the names and addresses of their parents in Myanmar.

The reporters got caught in a harrowing boat chase in choppy waters on their last night and, finally, were ordered off the island by angry company officials.

Still, the reporting team realized they needed more in order to have real impact. They were determined to trace the slave-caught fish to American dinner tables, and to name names.

We used satellites to track a huge refrigerated cargo ship filled with slave-caught fish from Benjina to Thailand. From there, we climbed into the back cab of a pickup with tinted windows because we were repeatedly warned it wasn’t safe for journalists to be seen near the port run by a violent fish mafia. We stayed hidden for hours over four nights as we followed truck after truck of seafood being delivered to cold storage facilities, processing plants and the country’s largest seafood market.
After weeks of working to nail down that some of these smaller companies were selling to two major Thai exporting businesses, Mendoza started connecting the dots in the U.S.
She used U.S. Customs records to determine that tainted fish can wind up in the supply chains of some of America’s biggest stores including Wal-Mart, Kroger, Albertsons and Safeway, along with the nation’s largest food distributor, Sysco. It can also find its way into the supply chains of some of the most popular brands of canned pet food, including Fancy Feast, Meow Mix and Iams.

The journalists waited to publish the story until the slaves they interviewed were safe. The International Organization for Migration worked with the Indonesian government to move the men off the island.

Just over a week after our story ran, the Indonesian government made a dramatic rescue, freeing more than 300 slaves from the island. Since then, nearly two years since our reporting began, more than 2,000 men have been identified or repatriated, arrests have been made, Thai cargo vessels have been seized in two countries, businesses have cut ties with tainted suppliers, Congressional hearings have been held, lawsuits have been filed and U.S. federal legislation has been written. The impact has surpassed anything we ever could have imagined, but major problems still persist in the Thai and global seafood industries. Our investigation continues.

The Donald W. Reynolds National Center for Business Journalism has produced this video featuring the AP reporters and other Barlett & Steele winners: