By Chris Adams
The stories started with a scene of Burmese slaves, sitting on the floor and staring through the rusty bars of a locked cage. They were hidden on an island, thousands of miles from home. Nearby, other workers loaded slave-caught seafood onto cargo ships destined for the United States and other locales.
The stories ended with a major upheaval in labor practices in fisheries worldwide, action by the U.S. government, changes in supply chains for retailers and restaurants in the U.S. and elsewhere.
That was “Seafood from Slaves,” a major investigation by The Associated Press that won the Pulitzer Prize for public service. One of the key reporters on that investigation – Martha Mendoza, a two-time Pulitzer winner – detailed the project and its journalistic techniques in a session with National Press Foundation fellows.
Mendoza (previous Pulitzer, Twitter) explained the genesis of the investigation, as well as its outcomes. For more than a year, four AP reporters documented the treatment of fishermen held as slaves and then showed how their catch fed U.S. supermarkets and restaurants. The stories ultimately led to the release of more than 2,000 enslaved fishermen and other laborers.
Mendoza, who also teaches journalism at the University of California, Santa Cruz, shared with fellows the images of the enslaved fishermen, as well as the shipping documents that allowed the AP to build a paper trail from the waters of Southeast Asia to U.S. markets.
The stories started after a rash of stories in several outlets about sporadic people escaping slavery in Southeast Asia. When they first saw men on boats in dock, the men “wouldn’t come off the boats” – a real red flag. The reporting involved stake-outs and web-based, ship-tracking documents.
After a small set of the fishermen were set free, authorities came to question all those that remained. “They asked them, ‘How many of you want to leave?’ and everybody raised their hands,” Mendoza said.
And she showed the joyful photos when the enslaved fishermen were set free.