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Burmese journalist earns a Pulitzer for reporting on ‘seafood slavery’

Esther Htusan, left, in Rangoon in April 2016. Htusan's work on a series of reports about slavery in the Southeast Asian seafood industry helped earn AP the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. (Photo: Steve Tickner)

A journalist from Kachin State and three of her Associated Press colleagues have scooped the award of a lifetime, thanks to their work exposing the horrors of the Southeast Asian fishing industry.

Esther Htusan and her coworkers Margie Mason, Robin McDowell and Martha Mendoza won the AP the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for Public Service after their exposé on the bloody supply chain of the seafood industry “freed 2,000 slaves, brought perpetrators to justice and inspired reforms,” according to the award announcement.

Htusan is believed to be the first journalist from Burma — and certainly the first Kachin — to take home the world’s most highly esteemed journalism award.

The team conducted an arduous yearlong study of the fishing network, revealing abuses, deaths and debt bondage at the hands of shipping bosses.

Speaking at the outlet’s New York office on Monday, AP International Editor John Daniszewski praised their determination.

“It was a tour de force of reporting, and I think that what really stands out about them is their determination not to stop short until they proved it in every which way,” he said.

Many regional media outlets had reported on the modern slavery in the Southeast Asian fishing industry, but the four AP reporters’ use of satellites and painstaking data analysis brought the story to an international audience.

Prominent US seafood supplies such as Walmart and Safeway were linked to the illegal trade, but all denied knowledge of the inhumane treatment of workers.

Thailand’s fishing industry brings in billions of dollars annually, but the Thai government has tried in recent years to regulate the trade, with shaky results. The introduction of different working permits and other forms of documentation, most requiring fees, has done little to quell the tide of poor Burmese traveling across the border in search of work.