Indian origin journalist wins Pulitzer Prize for exposing China’s detention camps for Uighur Muslims

An Indian-origin journalist, Megha Rajagopalan, along with two collaborators, has won the Pulitzer Prize for innovative investigative reports that exposed a vast organization of prisons and mass confinement camps secretly constructed by China for imprisoning hundreds of thousands of Muslims in its tense Xinjiang region.

Among two Indian-origin journalists, Ms. Rajagopalan from BuzzFeed News has won the US’s top journalism award.

Neil Bedi, an investigating reporter from Tampa Bay Times” won the prize for local reporting. Neil Bedi along with Kathleen McGrory, was awarded the Pulitzer for the string exposing a Sheriff’s Office initiative that used computer modelling to discover people assumed to be future crime suspects. Over 1,000 people were surveilled under the programme, including children.

Ms. Rajagopalan won the Pulitzer Prize for Xinjiang series in the International Reporting category.

BuzzFeed News said that in 2017, while China began to detain thousands of Muslims in Xinjiang, Rajagopalan was the first to visit an imprisonment camp at a time when China denied that such places existed.

BuzzFeed News in its entry for the prize wrote, in response, the government tried to silence her, revoking her visa and ejecting her from the country.”It would go on to cut off access to the entire region for most Westerners and stymie journalists. The release of basic facts about detainees slowed to a trickle.”

While Ms. Rajagopalan was working from London, she refused to be silenced and partnered with two contributors, Alison Killing and Christo Buschek. Alison Killing is a licensed architect who specialises in forensic analysis of architecture and satellite images of buildings, and Buschek is a programmer who builds tools tailored for data journalists.

“The blazing Xinjiang stories shine desperately needed light on one of the worst human rights abuses of our time,” said Mark Schoofs, editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed News.

Ms. Rajagopalan, minutes after she won, told BuzzFeed News she wasn’t even watching the ceremony live because she wasn’t expecting to win. She found out only when Mr. Schoofs called to congratulate her on the victory.

Ms. Rajagopalan over the phone from London said, “I’m in complete shock. I did not expect this.”

She said she was deeply grateful to the teams of people who worked with her, including her contributors, Killing and Buschek, editor Alex Campbell, BuzzFeed News” public relations team, and the organisations that sponsered their work including the Pulitzer Center.

Ms. Rajagopalan also addressed the courage of informants who spoke, despite the risk and threat of retribution against them and their families.

“I’m so grateful they stood up and were willing to talk to us,” she said. “It takes so much unbelievable courage to do that.”

The trio had hit the road to analyse thousands of satellite images of the Xinjiang region, which is bigger than Alaska. To answer just one simple question: Where were Chinese officials detaining as many as one million Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other Muslim minorities?

For months, the three compared censored Chinese images with uncensored mapping software. They began with a massive dataset of 50,000 locations.

Buschek built a custom tool to sort out through those pictures. BuzzFeed News, in its prize entry wrote, the team had to go through thousands of pictures one by one, authenticating several sites against other available evidence.

Eventually, they identified over 260 structures that emerged to be fortified detention camps. Some of these sites could even hold more than 10,000 people and many had factories where prisoners were forced into labour.

The extensive old-fashioned “shoe leather” also accompanied the journalism’s groundbreaking technological reporting.
Banned from China, so instead, Ms. Rajagopalan travelled to the neighbouring Kazakhstan, where many Chinese Muslims have sought refuge.

There, she discovered over two dozen people who were prisoners in the Xinjiang camps, winning their trust and assuring them to share their horrific experiences in those camps with the world.

Every year, Pulitzer prizes are awarded in twenty-one categories. Each winner gets a certificate and a USD 15,000 cash award in these twenty classifications. And the winner in category of the public service is awarded a gold medal.

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