NEW YORK - The Associated Press won the Pulitzer Prize for public service Monday for documenting the use of slave labor in Southeast Asia to supply seafood to American tables — an investigation that spurred the release of more than 2,000 captive workers.
The awards marked the centennial of the Pulitzers, American journalism’s highest honors.
AP journalists Margie Mason, Robin McDowell, Martha Mendoza and Esther Htusan chronicled how men from Myanmar and other countries were being imprisoned, sometimes in cages, in an island village in Indonesia and forced to work on fishing vessels. Numerous men reported maimings and deaths on their boats.
The 18-month project involved tracking slave-caught seafood to processing plants that supply supermarkets, restaurants and pet stores in the U.S. Subsequent AP reports detailed the use of slave labor in processing shrimp.
“If Americans and Europeans are eating this fish, they should remember us,” Hlaing Min, 30, a runaway slave from the Indonesian island, told AP. “There must be a mountain of bones under the sea.”
The stories, photos and videos led to freedom for thousands of fishermen and other laborers, numerous arrests, seizures of millions of dollars in goods and crackdowns on shrimp peeling plants in Thailand.
Established by newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer, the prizes were first given out in 1917. Public service award winners receive a gold medal; the other awards carry a prize of $10,000 each.
The expose of slavery in Southeast Asia’s fishing industry, awarded the Pulitzer Prize in public service Monday, was born from a painstaking, yearlong investigation by four Associated Press reporters who documented the harsh treatment of fishermen held captive on a remote island and traced their catch to U.S. supermarkets and restaurants.
The stories, accompanied by photos and video showing caged men and a man weeping when reunited with the family he hadn’t seen in 22 years, led to the release of more than 2,000 enslaved fishermen and other laborers. It came with substantial risk to the journalists, while posing thorny questions about how to spotlight the abuse without further endangering the captives.
The series, “Seafood from Slaves,” encompassed reporting across four countries by AP journalists Mason, McDowell, Mendoza and Htusan. Building on earlier reports of forced labor in Southeast Asia’s fishing industry, they spent a year delving into the harvesting and processing of inexpensive shrimp and other seafood sold to consumers in the U.S. and elsewhere.
The effort began in 2014 when McDowell and Htusan traveled to the Indonesian island of Benjina, about 1,900 miles from the country’s capital. The reporters found and talked with men held in a cage and interviewed other enslaved laborers at the town’s port. Under cover of darkness, they pulled alongside a trawler to film captives describing their plight, before the reporters’ boat was nearly rammed by an angry security guard’s craft.
The laborers, poor men from Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand, described how they had been lured into captivity, locked up, beaten and forced to work. They pointed the reporters to a graveyard where more than 60 workers who had died had been buried under false names.
From Benjina, the AP team relied on satellite technology to track a cargo ship carrying the slave-caught seafood to Thailand, where they watched it offloaded and trucked to cold storage plants and factories. Through interviews, surveillance and shipping records, they tracked the processed seafood to the U.S., eventually pressing suppliers and retailers including Wal-Mart and restaurant chains like Red Lobster about the labor abuses.
The reporters and their editors knew they had an explosive story. But they wrestled with whether to publish immediately and put the captives at risk, or provide information to authorities and wait until the men were safe, while risking being scooped. They decided on the latter, despite AP’s longtime emphasis on reporting, not making news.
Their efforts led to the rescue and freedom of hundreds of slaves on the island and aboard ships, as well as crackdowns on Thai shrimp peeling plants staffed by captive laborers as young as 15. Mason and Htusan traveled to Myanmar to see one of the freed men reunite tearfully with his family after two decades in captivity.
The Indonesian government launched a criminal inquiry soon after AP published. The series, overseen by Mary Rajkumar, AP’s international enterprise editor, also resulted in numerous arrests and seizures of millions of dollars in goods.
The award is the second Pulitzer for Mendoza, who was part of an AP team recognized in 2000 for “The Bridge at No Gun Ri,” about the mass killings of South Korean civilians by U.S. troops at the start of the Korean War.
AP has won more than 50 Pulitzers, including a 2013 award for photographs of the civil war in Syria and a 2012 investigative prize for revealing the New York Police Department’s widespread spying on Muslims.