Winners of the prestigious 2022 SOPA Awards were recently announced in Hong Kong, in a gala event that recognized the 40th anniversary of the Society of Publishers in Asia (SOPA) – as well as the courage of journalists working in Asia’s rising climate of censorship and media repression.
“The space is getting tighter, the laws are getting more difficult – just look at Hong Kong and Myanmar, where reporters are jailed just for doing their job,” said keynote speaker Gina Chua, executive editor at global news startup Semafor. “You can see just with general crackdowns, even without people going to jail or having their lives threatened, the space for information has narrowed in the region. But we’re blessed to have journalists – in many cases local journalists – who are willing to test the boundaries of those threats.”
She added: “I am in awe of the journalists who do this work in difficult circumstances, and in this environment.”
Following a tumultuous 2021 for journalists in Asia – which included the coup in Myanmar, the takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban, the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic, and crackdowns on free media in several countries – Cyril Pereira, a former chair of SOPA, was among the speakers who praised the tenacity of Asian reporters. “Let us not somehow imply that Asian journalism is in any way inferior to Western journalism,” warned Pereira.
The top overall prize – the Award for Public Service Journalism – went to The Wall Street Journal, for Of Unknown Origin, its investigation into China’s restrictions on the World Health Organization (WHO) probe into the causes of the coronavirus pandemic. The SOPA Awards for Editorial Excellence confers prizes for “great journalism” in 20 categories, broken down into English-language global, English-language regional, and Chinese-language stories. Two new categories were added this year – Audio Reporting and Technology – which were won by, respectively, Project Brazen, and The Economist’s 1843 Magazine, in the global English language group.
Meanwhile, the top watchdog category, the Carlos Tejada Award for Excellence in Investigative Reporting, featured a powerhouse group of regional finalists that relied on a combination of data reporting, innovative digging, and traditional journalism to cover difficult subjects. The Environmental Reporting Collective won the regional section of this category with an outstanding enterprise series on fishing industry crimes; honorable mention recognition went to Ozodlik, RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service, for its exposé on the abuse of taxpayer resources to build a luxury mansion for Uzbekistan’s new president; and Radio Free Asia achieved a finalist’s spot with a fascinating investigation that exposed the migration of autocrat-connected wealth from Cambodia to Australia.
The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, The Washington Post, and the Sunday Times of Sri Lanka shared the investigative prize in the global, English-language investigative section for the Pandora Papers, which exposed the covert movement of wealth in Asia and beyond.
Notably, the winning entries in several categories – from business reporting to breaking news, and explanatory writing – featured diligent investigative digging, according to the judges.
The panel also announced that an additional category for excellence in journalism from Indonesia will be introduced in 2o23.
Selected 2022 SOPA Award Winners (and Notable Finalists)
Carlos Tejada Award for Excellence in Investigative Reporting (Regional Winner)
Oceans Inc, by The Environmental Reporting Collective
This deeply reported exposé of shocking human rights abuses and environmental destruction caused by the unregulated fishing industry won both this prestigious investigative category and the SOPA award for Reporting on the Environment. A collaboration of journalists from a dozen newsrooms spent almost a full year digging into a multitude of crimes flowing from illegal fishing in the South China Sea and beyond.
Referring to one piece – titled Worked to Death – that focused on the abuse of migrant workers by one of China’s largest tuna fishing companies, the SOPA judges said: “The deaths of Indonesian fishers on Chinese fishing boats have been documented before, but this story took it a step further, with multiple reporters interviewing deckhands who have worked on 14 ships operated by the same company to show a pattern of abuse and negligence.”
Describing the broader project as a “tour de force,” the judges said the collaboration represented “a model of enterprise reporting.”
“Hard to know where to start with the success of this project, which is beautifully presented,” they noted. “Powerful personal narratives; deep reporting on the businesses involved.”
Excellence in Investigative Reporting (Regional: Honorable Mention)
The Uzbek President’s Secret Mountain Hideaway, from Ozodlik, RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service
The team’s multipart investigation found that a recreational mountain complex was built for the use of Uzbekistan’s president with taxpayer funds – and at an estimated cost of hundreds of millions of dollars. The investigation also found that the luxury compound is covered by one of six no-fly zones in Uzbekistan – and protected by roadblocks – despite being based in a protected nature reserve. The team contrasted the president’s claimed concern for fiscal responsibility with the excessive spending and secrecy surrounding the compound. They also unearthed several details – such as the localized no-fly zone and the confiscation of construction workers’ mobile phones – that offer striking similarities to the secrecy and funding abuses behind the vastly wasteful Russian compound known as “Putin’s Palace.”
In awarding the piece an honorable mention, SOPA judges said the story was “thoroughly researched and very impressive, in a country that is exceptionally difficult to cover.”
Excellence in Investigative Reporting (Chinese Language)
SOPA judges described this in-depth story as “a meticulous investigation based on company records and exclusive interviews that reveals how industrial regulatory loopholes in Taiwan allowed a mainland China ‘infiltration.”
SOPA Award for Public Service Journalism
Of Unknown Origin, from The Wall Street Journal
Given the global death toll caused by COVID-19 – and the future threat posed by novel coronaviruses – most people would expect governments with unique knowledge of the outbreak to be as transparent and helpful as possible with global health authorities. Instead, a team from The Wall Street Journal tracked troubling restrictions and disinformation in China that limited the ability of WHO experts to understand the origins of the virus.
“Public service journalism is about providing vital information that audiences need,” the SOPA judges noted. “In this sense, no other news story has been of greater public interest in this year than the pandemic. By addressing what is and what isn’t known about the origins of the pandemic, not only has this team helped shed light on new findings but also refuted disinformation campaigns that have polluted information ecosystems.”
Scoop Award (Chinese Language)
Critical 8 Days of Taiwan’s COVID-19 Outbreak, from The Reporter
Winning in a category devoted to impact and the power to attract the attention of other media, the team from The Reporter — a GIJN member — used inside sources to break down the failures in Taiwan’s initial coronavirus response.
“An impactful scoop that bears out journalism’s existential value: the government’s watchdog,” noted the judges. “Based on exclusive insider information obtained through dogged reporting, The Reporter’s story exposed costly shortcomings in the Taiwan government’s pandemic prevention measures, and led to change of preventive tactics.”
Excellence in Human Rights Reporting (Regional Winner)
Human Responses to the Junta’s Cruelty, from Myanmar Now
With this package of three stories, a reporting team at Myanmar Now revealed the diversity of groups targeted for brutal repression by the country’s military regime – from anti-coup activists to rescue workers simply seeking to help wounded protesters.
“By focusing on a murdered volunteer medical worker, a student tortured by the army, and a young mother who fell to her death rather than be captured by soldiers, the authors have put a real face to Myanmar’s despair,” the judges noted. “These three very personal stories of young people tell individual tales of heroism and tragedy in the face of the military takeover of Myanmar. Superb journalism.”
Excellence in Human Rights Reporting (Global Winner)
The Digital Detectives Searching for North Korea’s Disappeared, from the Financial Times
With this project, two reporters from the Financial Times dug into a Herculean effort by NGO researchers in South Korea to document evidence of human rights violations by the North Korean government. They also highlighted a rapidly growing database being built by the Transitional Justice Working Group NGO, which seeks to archive disappearances, imprisonments, and killings since the 1950s, as well as map-based lists of execution sites and mass graves in the secretive nation.
SOPA judges described the story as a “detailed insight into the protracted and difficult process of gathering evidence of human rights violations by the North Korean government, told through a series of engaging testimonies. It highlights the importance of documentation in justice and accountability mechanisms even though they may take decades to be realized.”
Rowan Philp is a reporter for GIJN. He was formerly chief reporter for South Africa’s Sunday Times. As a foreign correspondent, he has reported on news, politics, corruption, and conflict from more than two dozen countries around the world.