Truth to power
Since August 2017, more than 740,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled Myanmar for neighboring Bangladesh to escape violence that the United Nations has called “a text-book example of ethnic cleansing.” As Myanmar bureau chief for the Reuters news agency, Antoni Slodkowski led a team of journalists in investigating a massacre of 10 Rohingya men by Buddhist villagers and Myanmar troops. Two of the journalists, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, were arrested during their reporting and spent more than 500 days in prison. The team received a Pulitzer Prize in 2019 for its work.
Slodkowski, who is originally from Lodz, Poland, became interested in international issues as a Rotary Youth Exchange student in Japan. “That year in Osaka shaped my life,” he recalls. “It gave me an incredible foundation and the courage to travel the world and spread my wings.”
THE ROTARIAN: How do you approach reporting in hostile areas?
SLODKOWSKI: There’s a big organization [Reuters] behind us when we work. We have a set of stringent safety protocols. We try to be as conservative and reasonable as we can, while at the same time doing all we can to uncover wrongdoing and injustice, and hold the powerful to account.
TR: Your team got the perpetrators of the violence to open up about what happened. How did you gain trust?
SLODKOWSKI: The way you gain trust is by being open and honest, being upfront, and telling your sources what you want to do. In situations like this, sources are broadly divided into three categories. There are those who will never tell you anything and who will hide. Then there are people who will be boastful about what they’ve done. The man who helped dig the grave of the 10 Rohingya Muslim men, who is quoted at the beginning of the story we published, is like that. But then you also have people who perhaps feel remorse, such as the person quoted at the end of that story, who says he doesn’t want this to happen again and that’s why he’s sharing this information.
TR: There are a couple of really graphic images in this story that first show the 10 men kneeling with their hands behind their backs and, later, their bloodied bodies after they were slain. Why were those photos included?
The way you gain trust is by being open and honest.
SLODKOWSKI: There’s the saying that one picture is worth a thousand words. That is definitely the case here. As long as we could verify it, it’s very important evidence and it’s very rare. I’m proud of the way we presented those images. You can read about each of these men. We met their families in Bangladesh. For us it was very important to name these people and to show that they are fathers and brothers, to bring it home that these are human beings whose families will never forget the tragedy.
TR: What happened as a result of the Reuters investigation and the publication of the story?
SLODKOWSKI: The military launched their own probe into this. They dug up the grave. They sentenced seven soldiers to 10 years in prison. But then these soldiers got quietly released pretty quickly. People talk about the Pulitzer and congratulate us on the award, and I’m proud and grateful for it. But what really matters is that there were real-life consequences as a result of this reporting. For us, that’s the biggest prize.
— DIANA SCHOBERG
• This story originally appeared in the May 2020 issue of The Rotarian magazine.
• Read the story at reuters.com/investigates/special-report/myanmar-rakhine-events.