MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — When she was a student at West Virginia University, she knew she wanted to work overseas in journalism. What Margie Mason didn’t know was that she’d take part in a nearly 2-year investigation uncovering slave labor in the international fishing industry that would lead to one of the most prestigious awards a reporter can earn.
“This award is really incredible,” said Mason of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. “But, really the men who spoke out and risked their lives truly are the ones who should be honored here. We hope this award will actually shine a light on the problem and keep pressure on.”
Mason and her Associated Press colleagues, Esther Htusan, Robin McDowell and Martha Mendoza, learned of stranded fishermen from Myanmar stranded on Indonesian islands including Benjina.
“It was kind of an open secret for a long time. People knew that there were a lot of problems with labor abuses in the fishing industry of Southeast Asia,” Mason explained to Hoppy Kercheval on MetroNews “Talkline”.
The 1997 graduate of the P.I. Reed School of Journalism, now WVU Reed College of Media, was working in Jakarta beginning in 2012.
“Our goal from the very beginning was to try to find captive slaves and trace their seafood that they caught back to grocery stores and supermarkets in the U.S.” explained the Daybrook, Monongalia County native.
The inhumane treatment of fishermen was true.
“They were being beaten and the conditions were horrible. We found men locked in cages there, for instance,” Mason detailed.
Using satellite surveillance, the reporters tracked refrigerated cargo ships filled with seafood from slave labor to Thailand.
Stakeouts in the backs of pick-ups turned up more in the investigation.
“For 4 nights we followed this fish as it was being taken all over Samut Sakhon which is about an hour outside of Thailand. From there, we used U.S. custom records to see where that fish was going into the U.S.,” traced Mason.
The results of several articles from March to December 2015 included the freeing of 2,000 slaves, dozens of arrests and new legislation in the U.S. barring imports of slave-produced goods.
“Sometimes we thought we had it all figured out and pieced together. Then, the next day none of it made sense anymore. It was a really difficult investigation mainly because we didn’t have anybody helping us or guiding us. We didn’t have a source. We didn’t have documents. We didn’t have anything to kind of show us the way,” Mason said.
Mason is the Asia medical writer and Indonesia bureau chief for The Associated Press.