It was not until a hired man leapt into a speed boat, pursued them, and threatened to ram into their own boat that CHS alumna (‘83) Robin McDowell and her group of reporters, videographers, and photographers reluctantly fled from Benjina, a remote tropical island in Eastern Indonesia.
After spending more than a year reporting on the island, however, McDowell felt prepared to publicize the atrocities that had occurred in the depths of Benjina’s forests and in the prized Indonesian waters surrounding them.
On the edge of the island sat a single fishing factory which had kidnapped or lured hundreds of young Burmese men onto their boats with the promise of paid fishing jobs in Thailand. Instead, the men had been sent to foreign oceans thousands of miles from home and forced to work 20 to 22 hour shifts as enslaved fishermen seven days per week.
At the fishing company in Benjina, some slaves were held in cages, others were whipped with stingray tails and beaten by a hired man known simply as The Enforcer, and all were deprived of food, clean water and sleep.
Although Benjina is technically a part of Indonesia, even Indonesians had been largely unaware of its existence prior to McDowell’s reporting. Absent from the vast majority of maps, Benjina was truly an island with no escape.
And the fishing factory on Benjina was only one of a vast system of fishing companies profiting from modern day slavery.
Thailand leads Asia’s fishing industry, earning more than $7 billion per year from the seafood exports primarily caught and prepared by thousands of poor migrant fishermen tricked, sold or kidnapped into the industry. Fortunately, the work of McDowell and a group of reporters from Associated Press has changed this.
“Human rights issues and issues revolving around social justice have always been a focus of mine,” McDowell said. “I wanted to check the government and check authority and I wanted to provide an outlet for people who cannot voice their grievances on their own. I give them a way to tell the world what’s going on. Once you start doing that, other people in similar situations start to feel like they aren’t as alone.”
From a young age, McDowell knew that she wanted to enter the field of journalism. In Holland, McDowell’s uncle was the editor of the biggest newspaper in the family’s town.
“I’d always come home and see him and his friends smoking their pipes and talking about issues that were really important,” McDowell said. “I’ve always kind of romanticized journalism.”
Despite her clear passion for journalism, McDowell did not begin her work in the field until after graduating from Washington University.
I almost wanted to be a journalist so badly that I was too intimidated to do it. I was worried that I wouldn’t be good at it and that the dream would die.
— Robin McDowell
Regardless, McDowell studied English Literature in college, went on to work for various book publishing companies in Boston and New York City, and then returned to school at Columbia University to study journalism. During this time, she worked various part-time jobs in the field of journalism that ultimately connected her to Cambodia.
During the Vietnam War, the United States bombed large portions of Cambodia, increasing the anti-western sentiments of the Communist group called Khmer Rouge which then attempted to nationalize Cambodia. This attempt led to the Cambodian Genocide – the deaths of more than a quarter of Cambodia’s population in less than three years. Throughout the genocide, a Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia, and 12 years of civil war, laws regulating the media in Cambodia were very strict. It wasn’t until the UN imposed a press freedom provision in 1993 that journalism once again had a place in the country.
With the help of a connection from one of her part-time jobs, McDowell found herself starting a newspaper in Cambodia and reporting on the country’s uncertain future. Although she began working for Associated Press a few years later, McDowell did not leave Asia.
“The most challenging part was that I could write a story, and it could be a story about a girl who gets stolen off a street on her way home from school and sold into sex trafficking, and you might be able to help that individual girl, tell her story, get human rights workers involved and get her home, but you’re helping one person,” McDowell said. “The rest of the world just doesn’t care about another story about a horrible thing that’s happening on the other side of the world, so getting it to be something that actually has a larger meaning and an impact is really difficult.”
This would certainly prove to be the largest challenge facing McDowell and the group of reporters from Associated Press as they first considered reporting on the atrocities occurring within the fishing industry in East Asia.
McDowell primarily discussed the topic with fellow AP reporter Margie Mason.
“She and I both knew that the seafood industry was one of the most brutal. These guys would go out on boats and disappear, and people would treat them however they wanted to,” McDowell said. “There was no escape. They were prisoners on those boats. It’s something that people were writing about, but nobody seemed to care.”
But then Mason called McDowell with a way to make people care.
“I was in a bar in Burma and Margie called me and she said, ‘You know what, what if we track the seafood back to American dinner tables? Maybe that’s how we can make people care,’” McDowell said.
Although the idea of tracking food products had become a standard technique, the relative complexity of East Asia’s fishing industry compared to that of other global networks made Mason’s goal more difficult.
“It seemed impossible,” McDowell said. “The fishermen are at sea. You don’t have your eyes on them. You can’t see which boats are abusive boats and which ones are full of men who made the choice to be on those boats.”
To further complicate the situation, fishing boats in East Asia do not necessarily go to port and unload the fish that they have caught. Instead, large refrigerated cargo ships meet the smaller boats and pick up the fish at sea. Due to this practice, the fish from dozens of different fishing companies become mixed together very quickly.
“There’s just no way to know which fish is ending up at Walmart,” McDowell said.
Despite these challenges, McDowell and Mason were determined to report on the human trafficking issues within East Asia’s seafood industry.
“Margie heard about a bunch of fishermen who had been stranded on an island in Eastern Indonesia. We knew there was a fishing factory, and we knew that there were Thai companies who were connected to that fishing factory,” McDowell said. “In our minds, this was the ground zero – the closest we would get. Nobody had been there to see how these guys were being treated. We knew that we had to check it out because it was not something that was happening five years ago. It was happening right then.”
It was decided. McDowell would go to Benjina.
Two boat rides, four plane rides and thirty hours later, she arrived on the island with an Indonesian videographer and photographer. The crew had to lie to the fishing company on Benjina and pretend to be filming a praising documentary about the rich Indonesian waters holdings billions of dollars worth of the world’s seafood.
“We kind of pitched it like we were doing a good news story about Indonesian fishing industry. They bought it because they had been operating at will for so many years without anyone realizing what was actually going on there,” McDowell said.
Although the managers of the island’s fishing company did not originally question the group’s intentions, they did not allow the photographer and videographer to venture anywhere on their own. The managers arrived at the group’s shack every morning, guided the camera men to the boats and allowed the photographer and videographer to document the village life.
McDowell, on the other hand, was left alone. The managers of the fishing company assumed that she was a tourist who had followed the camera men from the previous island and would go teach English to the island children or visit Benjina’s coastal villages.
“They left me alone and followed the photographers everywhere, so I was able to do some reporting,” McDowell said.
Very quickly, McDowell managed to interview men who had been captives on the company’s fishing boats but had since escaped and were now living in various villages with new Indonesian families. The majority had been kidnapped by the company. Others had been tricked into the business, sold and told that they could not leave until they paid back their own sale value with wages that never came.
“I had an idea at that point that this was what was happening in the company, but because I was talking to guys that had fished a couple years before, it wasn’t good enough, because I still needed to know if it was still happening,” McDowell said.
In her determination to talk to current fishermen, however, McDowell faced a significant challenge. Although she spoke the language of Cambodia, she did not speak Burmese, and the vast majority of the enslaved men had been trafficked from Burma. But after reporting in Asia for 20 years, McDowell had built enough connections to solve this problem.
“I managed to get in touch with a colleague in Burma, and she was a Burmese girl who had been a journalist for two years, and I told her that she had to get here,” McDowell said.
Two boat rides, four plane rides and thirty hours later, Esther Htusan arrived on the island from Burma. Like Cambodia, Burma had also experienced a tumultuous history, but following a strict period of military dictatorship and civil war, it was celebrating a new, open press. After years in the dark, Htusan struggled to cope with the atrocities she witnessed on the island of Benjina.
“She couldn’t believe that all these guys were Burmese. What were they doing here? To her, it was the end of the world,” McDowell said. “It would be like if we showed up in Africa and found a bunch of people from Ladue living on an island or something. You just can’t believe it. What are these people doing here?”
Although the ethnic connection between Htusan and the enslaved fishermen was painful, she was immediately drawn to the story. The fishing factory had women do the cooking for the managers inside, so Htusan was able to blend in and explore the factory grounds. Now that she could listen and translate, the stories of the enslaved fishermen poured out.
“The men were so desperate to talk to her,” McDowell said. “As soon as they found out that Esther was a journalist, they would chase after us and try to get messages out to their families to say that they were alive. People were crying and knocking on our door in the middle of the night and begging us to take them back home.”
One day, a fisherman brought McDowell and Htusan to the island’s graveyard. By that time, the jungle of Benjina had devoured the few dozen stones marking the locations of buried bodies, but everyone knew that hundreds of dead fishermen actually rested in the area. On the few gravestones that remained, fake Thai names eliminated all evidence of the abuse that occurred on the island. When tricked or sold onto ships, the Burmese men had all been given these fake Thai identities so that their captors could avoid federal investigations. Even in death, the slaves were not treated as humans.
Shortly after McDowell’s trip to Benjina’s graveyard, the factory managers grew suspicious of her.
“At this point, the workers would just follow us everywhere and try to tell us stories, so [the managers] called us into their office and wanted to know what we were doing,” McDowell said. “They basically told us that we had to get off the island by the next day.”
Despite the warning, McDowell knew that she would not get the chance to return to the island, so she moved beyond the factory grounds and pretended like she had misunderstood the manager’s demands.
“But then they hired some thugs to look out for us and some guy saw us filming like fifty yards away and he jumped onto his speed boat and started chasing us and threatening to ram into our boat,” McDowell said. “At that point, we were definitely in serious danger.”
The next morning, McDowell and the rest of the group left the island.
“I have talked to people who have been in horrible situations – have lost everything – and the hardest thing is that you can’t promise them anything. You can’t tell them that anything is going to change just because you’ve written the story. Maybe if enough people write about an issue, then something will happen, but you never feel in your heart like you’ve done enough,” McDowell said.
Fortunately, the atrocities committed on Benjina were different. No reporter had ever been to the island before, so the story would surprise the world. Furthermore, McDowell and her group had personally seen the fish caught by enslaved Burmese men inducted into a network linked to the United States. After tracking the ship via satellite online for two weeks, McDowell and Mason even met the boat at port and followed the trucks loaded with the fish to factories that shipped to the United States.
All you can really do is try to write the best story you can and try to make it broader and try to explain in the story that this is not just one person.
— Robin McDowell
Now that the atrocities had been linked to the United States, McDowell knew that the investigation would not go unnoticed like so many other investigations of enslaved fishermen had.
“So we felt confident telling the men that we were going to get them off the island,” McDowell said. “And that’s not something that you can say very often.”
McDowell’s promise did not fall short.
Two weeks after the publication of the story, the Indonesian government visited Benjina, confirmed the investigation and immediately evacuated the trafficked fishermen. From the island’s boats, factory and jungle, 320 fishermen sprinted through copious torrents of rain to board the boats that would take them home.
Today, more than 2,000 enslaved fishermen have been rescued from dozens of factories across Indonesia as a direct result of McDowell’s investigation on Benjina. The reporting also led to the closure of a multi million-dollar Thai-Indonesian fishing company and three class-action lawsuits. Furthermore, companies in the United States linked to this fish could no longer deny culpability and Congress is currently working to create greater transparency throughout food networks.
For their investigative work, McDowell and the three other reporters on the story – Margie Mason, Esther Htusan, and Martha Mendoza – won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 2016.
But it was not recognition that McDowell wanted when she set out to tell the stories of the enslaved fishermen on the island of Benjina.
“Being able to know these guys and their stories and then seeing them get back home and knowing that we helped with that… You can’t beat that,” McDowell said.
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