Journalists grapple with complexities of covering slavery

by Timothy Large | @timothylarge | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 1 December 2014 22:18 GMT

Nobel peace laureate and children's rights activist Kailash Satyarthi called for global support to end child slavery while speaking at the Trust Women conference in London on November 19, 2014.. REUTERS/Suzanne Plunkett

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Reporters from Mexico to Romania find that modern-day slavery is about more than sex trafficking and simple statistics

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - More people are trapped – abused or tortured might be better words – in slavery today than ever in history. The ultimate commodification of human beings, slavery generates $150 billion in illegal profits annually. It’s an industry that enchains girls, women, men and boys in prisons as diverse as brothels, fishing fleets, construction sites and brick kilns.

Almost 150 years after civil war ended slavery on U.S. soil, it remains a global story of our times. Its drivers are many and complex but include economic migration, poverty, lack of education, climate change, food insecurity, organised crime and corruption.

And yet, even as more governments pass legislation to tackle the scourge, and charities scramble for funds to enter the anti-trafficking fray, reporting on slavery is mired in misinformation and misconception.

Much of the fixation remains on sex slavery, which accounts for the bulk of illegal profits but only a small proportion of the problem in terms of numbers of people. Far more slaves work in domestic servitude or forced manual labour, say, than in brothels or massage parlours.

Then there’s the problem of data. The Global Slavery Index by Walk Free Foundation has become the standard yardstick, estimating that almost 36 million people are enslaved worldwide, with highest prevalence rates (per head of population) in Mauritania, Uzbekistan, Haiti, Qatar and India.

But as Anne Gallagher writes in the Guardian, the murkiness of the crime “creates an almost irresistible temptation to make a silk purse out of a very tattered sow’s ear: to harness the power of statistics and numbers to create an illusion of concreteness that masks the slipperiness of what we are counting.”

In Gallagher’s view, Walk Free’s data is seriously flawed. She blames the anti-trafficking community for muzzling criticism of the organisation’s methodology, arguing that poor information leads to bad decisions.

All of which underlines the importance of better coverage of what leading slavery expert and former investigative journalist Benjamin Skinner has described as a “crime so monstrous”.

It’s that recognition that prompted Thomson Reuters Foundation to launch its first ever Reporting Slavery and Trafficking course, held in parallel with the Foundation’s Trust Women Conference, which has a major focus on slavery and trafficking.

The workshop-cum-seminar in London brought together journalists from Indonesia, Nigeria, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Romania, India, Nepal, Kenya, South Africa, Brazil and Mexico for five days of intensive exposure to world leaders in the anti-slavery fight, including researchers, investigative journalists, policymakers, law enforcement officials and former slaves themselves.

Participants had unfettered access to conference speakers and delegates: the likes of Kailash Satyarthi, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and chairperson of the Global March Against Child Labour; New York County District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance, Jr.; Martina Vandenberg, founder of the Human Trafficking Pro Bono Legal Center; and extraordinary survivors of slavery and human trafficking such as Marcela Loaiza and Evelyn Chumbow.

In addition, we invited a cast of experts just for the course: Kevin Bales, lead author of the Global Slavery Index; Benjamin Skinner, now co-founder and senior vice-president of Tau Investment Management, a private equity firm devoted to cleaning up dirty supply chains; Sara Gilmer, reports and political affairs officer in the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons at the U.S. Department of State; Rachel Witkin, counter-trafficking lead at the Helen Bamber Foundation; award-winning photojournalists Hazel Thompson and Carol Allen-Story, and Eva Constantaras, a data journalist specialising in cross-border investigations.

In line with the Foundation’s increased emphasis on actual story production as part of our media development work, attendees were expected to churn out top-notch pieces.

They did – first and foremost for their own media organisations. Stories included Priyali Sur’s superb CNN-IBN Live interview with Kailash Satyarthi for broadcast in India, Adriana Carranca’s full page special in the Sunday version of Brazil's Estadão newspaper and Ella Syafputri’s prolific series of stories for Indonesia’s

Others chose to write for an international audience on, with mentoring from Thomson Reuters Foundation instructors Nita Bhalla and Katherine Baldwin. You can see their articles here in a special "spotlight".

To get a flavour of the journalism produced, and to keep up to date on new articles and resources, check out our Reporting Trafficking and Slavery Facebook group. Originally set up as a virtual water cooler for workshop attendees, the group has blossomed into a meeting place for anyone interested in coverage of the issues. I encourage you to join.

Expect more stories to come. We will be offering grants to attendees of the course to collaborate on investigations internationally. No spoiler alert, but we have compelling - and truly shocking - reportage in the works.

 --Tim Large is Director, Journalism and Media Programmmes at  the Thomson Reuters Foundation




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