It took more than a year of unrelenting investigation, often undercover, for AP journalists to expose the use of forced labor in Southeast Asia’s seafood industry. It took a year to highlight crumbling infrastructure across America. It takes talent, hard work — and time — to produce great journalism that has impact. Here’s a look at some of the fine work AP journalists delivered to front pages, websites and broadcasts across the globe in 2015.
Slavery at sea — especially in the Thai fishing industry — had been an open secret for decades. Long held were suspicions that the catch was ending up on American dinner tables. There was no proof until AP journalists Esther Htusan, Margie Mason, Robin McDowell and Martha Mendoza probed an industry built on the backs of forced labor. They found indisputable evidence that slave-caught fish was tainting the supply chains of U.S. supermarkets, restaurants and pet foods.
After months of networking, poring over documents and pursuing tips and leads, the AP team tracked stories of abuse to Benjina, a little-known island village in the far eastern waters of Indonesia. There they found men being held against their will, sometimes in locked cages. Some were beaten by overseers and some murdered. The investigation turned up a graveyard where dozens of fishermen from Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand were buried, many under fake names.
Over the course of 18 months, the journalists located slaves, trailed refrigerated trucks and used satellites to track ships at sea. They used bills of lading to trace the slave-caught fish to America.
The investigation led to the release of more than 2,000 slaves. Arrests were made, ships were seized and businesses shut down. Thailand’s prime minister vowed to take action against any companies found to have used slave labor and the country’s biggest seafood company said it had cut ties with a supplier named in the AP report.
They found men being held against their will, beaten by overseers and working 22 hours a day. On land, some were kept in locked cages. At sea, some were murdered.
The practices AP exposed were widely condemned in the U.S. Congress. The reporting was cited in three lawsuits that accuse food companies of using seafood tainted by slavery. Some of the world’s largest companies have promised reforms affecting thousands of workers. One cut ties with abusive and unregulated contractors and hired 1,200 people in-house instead.
Ultimately, President Barack Obama signed legislation banning U.S. imports of fish caught by slaves, closing a loophole in the U.S. Tariff Act of 1930 that failed to keep some products of forced and child labor out of America.
More than $1 billion in federal water infrastructure money has been allotted to states but is sitting unspent. American drivers are headed toward a slow-motion catastrophe unless roads and mass transit are improved quickly. The networks that keep the nation’s lights on are vulnerable to computer attack, and Iran-based hackers have already made troubling gains.
These are just some of the findings of a yearlong investigation into the state of the nation’s infrastructure, conducted in partnership with the Associated Press Media Editors. The project delivered an in-depth enterprise story each quarter on a major topic of national concern. These stories, driven by AP journalists and including data that could be used for state-level stories, examined federal and state road and highway funding, traffic congestion and gridlock, threats to drinking water quality, and weaknesses in the nation’s power grid.
And they had impact: Laments about the current state of affairs and calls for greater investment were heard from statehouses to the White House, and the issues climbed to the top of the news agenda for AP customers.
Five months of investigation and scientific testing by AP led in July 2015 to a startling discovery with significant consequences for the 2016 Olympic Summer Games in Brazil: The waters designated for swimming and boating events in South America's first games are rife with human sewage and present a serious health risk for athletes. In fact, not one Olympic venue was fit for competition, according to international experts, who said a cleanup was impossible before the opening ceremonies.
Previous reports questioned the quality of water at venues for the Summer Olympics, but AP conducted the first independent and comprehensive test for viruses and bacteria. Athletes will swim and boat in waters so contaminated they risk becoming violently ill and unable to compete in the games. Some of the disease-causing viruses measured up to 1.7 million times the level that would be considered hazardous on a Southern California beach. The risk was validated after athletes training early at Olympic sites fell ill with fevers, vomiting and diarrhea.
The story received widespread play and, not surprisingly, strong denials from Brazilian and Olympic officials, who said the water would be safe for competition — though they tested only for bacteria and not for viruses.
Hours after the November 2015 gun and bomb attacks killed 136 people in Paris, French police stopped one of the attackers, Salah Abdesalam, near the French-Belgian border. They checked his identification but let him go. AP Paris correspondent Lori Hinnant and Geneva correspondent Jamey Keaten got the scoop. Using strong source work and investigative intuition, they exposed a major failure in the authorities’ response and called attention to flaws in European security that had global impact. Meanwhile, AP journalist Qassim Abdul-Zahra in Baghdad obtained proof that French officials were notified of an impending attack in an Iraqi intelligence memo sent to the U.S.-led coalition there.
That night Africa photographer Jerome Delay, who happened to be home in Paris, was determined to capture the story. So he got on a bicycle to get closer to where the attacks had taken place. Knowing the city so well, Delay was able to navigate back streets and capture compelling closeups, including one that ran worldwide showing a lone body covered by a blanket outside the Bataclan theater.
Only 10 months earlier, Paris was the scene of another tragedy: a shooting spree at the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo. AP was the first to report that 11 died in the attack, and then first to report in English the final death tally of 12, with a named source. AP journalist Samuel Petrequin was the first to quote a named source confirming the deaths of the two brothers behind the attacks, while AP reporting outside France confirmed that al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula had claimed credit for the attack.
One horrifying video received global coverage. Video shot by a witness looking down at the scene showed the gunmen confronting a wounded policeman — his hands raised and begging for mercy — and then coldly shooting him in the head at close range. After the man who took the video posted it briefly on Facebook, AP European investigative correspondent Raphael Satter tracked him down and got the story behind the video. The man told AP he regretted posting the video, so shocking were the images — a perspective offered solely by AP.