Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Martha Mendoza spoke about her investigation into slavery in the Thai seafood sector at Hearst Field Annex on Wednesday night to a crowd of about 50 people.
Mendoza, an Associated Press journalist whose reports have prompted congressional hearings, Pentagon investigations and White House responses, was part of a team whose investigation into the Thai seafood sector exposed abusive practices and led to the freedom of more than 2000 enslaved men.
At the free event hosted by the Berkeley Forum, Mendoza offered a behind-the-scenes look at their investigation and recounted her team’s effort to “find people currently enslaved and follow fish all the way back to the American dinner table.”
The Berkeley Forum, a student-run nonpartisan organization on campus that hosts panels, talks and debates by experts from diverse fields, provided a student moderator, and the discussion was opened up to questions from the audience.
Mendoza spoke of how her team used satellite imagery to find a fishing operation on the small Indonesian island of Benjina. Members of her team then traveled there and spoke with the men on this island, who they discovered were mostly from Myanmar, were brought there through Thailand and forced to fish.
“It was a bear to write this story — it was a very long complicated story,” Mendoza said during her speech. “How do we do this? How do we convey to people that these could be your brothers and sons, not just some far-off person with a name you don’t understand.”
Mendoza and her team used open-source satellite pings emitted by boats to follow one boat in Benjina carrying fish caught by slaves. When the boat docked near Bangkok, they used long lenses to watch the fish being unloaded into trucks. Next, they followed the trucks to a number of different factories and, using shipment records available when goods cross borders, they were able to construct a supply chain tracing to the U.S.
The investigation found that tainted fish can wind up in the supply chains of major grocery stores, such as Kroger, Albertsons-Safeway and Walmart.
“It was interesting to learn about something that is outside of my field … to broaden my knowledge and learn what is going on,” said campus freshman Sheila Tran, who attended the event. “I’m a freshman so I’m really new to this kind of stuff.”
After the event, a group of students gathered outside to talk among themselves and reflect on the role of investigative journalism. Campus master’s degree candidate Manuel Ochoa, who is from Mexico, said “this kind of journalism” could be dangerous in Latin America.
“I always try to talk to students when I can,” Mendoza said in an interview with The Daily Californian. “I mean I really want to because I think they’re probably the most important audience, the most impactful audience.”