September 20, 2021

Event Coverage Highlight

Whitman Bassow Award Winners Share Stories from the Trenches of the ‘WWF’s Secret War’

Clockwise from upper left: Kim Murphy, Katie J.M. Baker and Tom Warren.

by Chad Bouchard

Two years ago, BuzzFeed journalists Tom Warren and Katie J.M. Baker set out to unravel a vast global conservation effort that had repeatedly ignored human right abuses and atrocities against Indigenous communities, including rape, torture and murder. Those abuses were allegedly committed by government agents who were funded and bolstered by a pattern of denial and secrecy within the largest conservation organization in the world, the World Wide Fund for Nature, or WWF.

On Dec. 15, 2020, the OPC hosted a discussion with Warren and Baker, whose year-long investigation won this year’s Whitman Bassow Award for best reporting in any medium on international environmental issues. The head judge for the award, Kim Murphy of The New York Times, served as moderator.

The series of stories, titled “WWF’s Secret War,” took the team to five countries across Africa and Asia as they built a bulletproof body of evidence showing that the organization had ignored widespread complaints of abuse and knowingly funded park rangers and paramilitary groups that terrorized communities in the name of anti-poaching campaigns.

The two reporters talked about key breakthrough moments in their reporting, such as a windfall during their a trip in Cameroon when a source handed over a “Yellow Pages” sized park management plan that documented WWF funding. For several hours they photographed the sheaf, page by page, from inside their remote darkened hut.

“The whole structure of WWF is in some ways purposefully complex,” Baker said. “You never know who’s funding who, and how much money is going to what, so this was the first time we were able to understand what money was going toward anti-poaching law enforcement.”

The team later used scanning software to turn the documents into searchable text that helped them connect dots in the investigation. Warren called it a “high point of his career that illustrated an unusual mix of foreign correspondence and data journalism.”

They also talked about some of the more harrowing chapters of the investigation, including having their truck get stuck in rainy-season mud and having to be shuttled out by motorbike, and a strange encounter with a drunk police officer who decided to hitch a ride on the back of their vehicle.

Warren described an account they heard from villagers where a guard had tried to extract information from parents about possible poaching activity by inflicting pain on their child.

“The complaints were being made, but there was no follow-up on them,” he said. “Think about an allegation where a child was tortured by one of your partners – you would investigate, you would go and find out what had happened. And that hadn’t been the case.”

Baker added that their reporting was not the first time WWF had heard about these atrocities.

“It wasn’t just that WWF had a complaint mechanism that wasn’t working,” she said. “They themselves had commissioned reports by human rights investigators repeatedly to go and interview people and talk to them. And they knew that these allegations of torture and rape and sometimes murder were a problem.”

In response to BuzzFeed’s investigation, in April 2019 the WWF commissioned a review of abuse allegations. The 160-page report, published on Nov. 24 this year, corroborated that the organization had repeatedly failed to follow its own human rights policies. The review recommends several measures to improve, including better oversight, hiring human rights specialists, and better complaint review systems. A WWF statement said the organization embraces the review panel’s recommendations and said it was “determined to do more to make communities’ voices heard, to have their rights respected, and to consistently advocate for governments to uphold their human rights obligations.

You can read the winning work here >>

Watch video clips from the program in the window below.