Pulitzer Center Rainforest Investigations Network Fellows Gerry Flynn and Anton L. Delgado report from Phnom Penh, Cambodia, for Mongabay and the Southeast Asia Globe, respectively. Pulitzer Center Editorial Intern Ethan Widlansky spoke with them about their methodologies and experiences.
Freelance journalist Gerry Flynn intended to write about dam construction and related illegal logging in the Mekong region, but the dam project stalled. Development and environmental desecration, however, did not. Since March, Flynn has documented the extractive patronage networks in Cambodia for his RIN project Power, Profits, and Patronage: Cambodian Elites Plunder the Cardamoms. He uses QGIS, visualizing software for networks of national and international interests, financial documents, and boots-on-the-ground reporting. His work is published by Mongabay International.
Southeast Asia Globe staff reporter and former 2020 Reporting Fellow Anton L. Delgado writes about corruption and conservation for his RIN project, Passing for Protection. Sourcing millions of dollars in international aid and market investment, Cambodian conservation efforts remain opaque. Delgado lifts the government’s regulatory veil with satellite images, data trends, and investigative reporting.
Editorial Intern Ethan Widlansky interviews Flynn and Delgado on reporting in Cambodia, where collaboration is key to navigating a rough environment for journalists—both politically and physically.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Ethan Widlansky: How close are you to one another? And are you sharing information?
Anton Delgado: Gerry and I are more boots-on-the-ground type of reporters. So while we're both based in Phnom Penh, I'll ping Gerry, and he'll respond, "Super sorry: I'm in the middle of this far away province." It trades on and off. We're both generally in Phnom Penh, but because we like field reporting, we’re kind of bopping around a couple of times a month.
EW: But when you do collaborate, what does that information sharing look like?
Gerry Flynn: For a long time, we were doing a weekly meetup and going over the progress that we're making on each of our projects. Anton's project area is focuses on different parts of Cambodia. Mine is very specifically focused on one mountain range, so we share everything we can think of. Lately, the rainy season has made both of our projects a little bit tricky because everywhere is washed out. So we often have to change travel plans, and travel a lot more, with Anton being up at the other end of the country right now.
EW: Do you travel alone? I know you often work with local journalists—do you travel with them? Is it more of a collaborative relationship there?
GF: I'm learning to speak the local language, but my proficiency is a long way off from being able to work comprehensively. Actually, I did my first telephone interview in Khmer yesterday! So we're getting there. But as a result I would usually travel with a local journalist and sometimes with a photographer as well because I put my camera on sports mode and point and shoot away. I usually travel with two or three people, together. Anton has the luxury of having a team based here.
AD: The Southeast Asia Globe is a regional outlet, but we have a headquarters here in Phnom Penh and a sister newsroom which publishes in Khmer. I’ll usually pitch stories to my editors, and then we'll partner up with our sister newsroom. Unfortunately, I have a bit of a reputation for going to extreme places, which a lot of folks don't enjoy. So, there are a couple of reporters that I've more-consistently worked with who are more open to that type of reporting. And we set up boundaries like, "Okay, on the sixth leech we’ll leave."
If there is a genuine concern about health and safety, I might go out alone. It's not always fair to bring colleagues on those field reporting trips because they don’t always know the situation as well as I do. So I am doing a risk assessment for both of us and I don’t think that is fair to them. I may be more comfortable in certain situations and they may not be. I think that gets a bit hairy. So usually, if it's a genuine concern, I'll probably opt to go alone. But for the vast majority of my trips, I'll partner up.
EW: Would you say that scouting or posting up at a site is the most difficult aspect of this kind of reporting—because of the climate? Because as it is, I imagine you're getting stonewalled by the government, and companies aren't so excited about you taking photos of their operations. Obviously, it's hard to rank these, but is there one component of reporting in those most severe situations that is the most difficult? Or does it all kind of mix together?
GF: I was recently discussing with another journalist about how the rainy season and just poor rural infrastructure are probably the best forest protection you can get. The roads are bad: You drive to a hydropower dam under construction, and then two weeks after that, three people died in a mudslide. The environment is one thing, but I think the hostility of the authorities is the biggest threat.
We had an incident in May, when we found a timber depot. We went at about 5:00am to get some photos. The photos are great. After taking them, a group of guys come out of this building, the depot, and immediately start chasing us.
My motorbike tire was flat. So me and my Cambodian colleague went to fix my bike. But he told me to just run and get back to the hotel, hide out. Then like the guy from the timber depot in a four by four truck chased our photographer down the road while they were driving on the motorbike. Pretty hairy. Thankfully, the photographer made it back safely in the end. And then the Cambodian colleague and I went back and interviewed the guy that chased him to get his side of the story. I think that sort of thing is fairly commonplace.
EW: Maybe it's hard to tell. But were these government agents, or members of the company?
GF: It's a little bit tricky, actually. It's seemingly a private company, but it’s operating out of state-run facilities and there are some irregularities in the processing of what appears to be illegally logged timber. We're still trying to work out exactly who, but we can definitely say that there's several high-ranking government officials that are at least aware of it. People's level of involvement is still something we have to determine.
AD: I would agree with Gerry, running into unhappy folks in the field would be the leading cause of concern. Likely followed immediately by the environment itself. I would say the number one stopper to our reporting is the environment.
Being stonewalled by the government is a pain, but our solution is developing trust in these locations with people on the ground. And if we're only spending three to four weeks there sprinkled throughout the year, it's really hard to develop those long lasting, trustworthy relationships where you can break through that stonewall.
In terms of things that are roadblocks to our journalism, environmental access definitely makes everything so much more complicated. Like Gerry says, you can have a perfect plan, but then if it rains the night before, and you're on motos, you're done. You're constantly just desperately trying to adapt on the field.
EW: Cultivating relationships is an incredibly vital part of journalism. But have you encountered much skepticism around the media? Frustration? What sorts of things have you heard—not necessarily from the folks working for these for-profit entities—but from the folks living around them who are caught up in all of it?
GF: I think one of the prevailing responses that I've found is fear. They're a lot of the time very afraid to be seen talking to journalists if it is a sensitive issue, especially if it does involve corruption.
Last time in July, when I was out in the field, we had to arrange interviews at a bar, and just kind of pretend to be tourists. We had the owner of the bar go out and find people by saying, "Oh, come, come have a drink with the foreigners." We'd sit down, talk about illegal logging [for] one hour kind of publicly. But yeah, there's the way the local government is kind of structured. It's kind of hard to know who you can trust and who you can't, because in certain villages, locals will be aligned with the government. And if they see a foreign journalist, we're never there for anything positive, right? It's only bad news if we're there. So I think we get that a lot—people not wanting to be seen with us or afraid of what consequences they might face.
EW: Do you feel obvious? Is your first ploy often to go for the tourist alibi?
GF: We've done it with tourists. Birdwatchers. Researchers–researchers, weirdly, get a bit of a free pass. There's a lot of foreign researchers coming into Cambodia. They're a bit less of a target than journalists. People feel a little bit more comfortable talking thinking it's research, it's not gonna be published. And then we explain to our sources, "Okay, well, we might have said we were researching and when we were like this is a public place, but now we're here. Actually, we're journalists. Do you still want to talk?" So it's tricky. With $60, we managed to get our Cambodian colleagues' car windows tinted out. That way we can travel around in his car and not be seen. If you travel by motorbike, and you're wearing a helmet, they instantly know you as a foreigner. Yeah, we're pretty obvious.
AD: My Khmer is far behind Gerry's, but the one word that I often hear whenever I say I am a journalist is: banhhea, which is like "trouble." People often think you're gonna cause them trouble. There is a general mistrust between the public and a lot of local news outlets here. Not all local news outlets abide by the same journalistic principles as The Pulitzer Center, Mongabay, and The Globe.
To be honest, it is similar for some government officials I've spoken to. I've had a lot of off-the-record conversations, and whenever I ask why we couldn’t go on the record, [they say] "That's going to cause a lot of trouble within the office or within our department." It's a mix of fealty they don't want to be quoted; they'd rather their bosses be quoted. So it's like, "just talk to the boss." Usually, the boss doesn't know a lot or isn't super involved or knows exactly how to play journalists.
EW: What does that play look like?
AD: Gerry, how many excuses have you got? Yesterday, I got: "Sorry, we can't speak to journalists, because it's not in our policy." And then somebody sat down and started talking to us, and then got a phone call and then goes, "Oh, my boat broke down. I'm sorry, I have to go." And left. And I was like, this is just getting to the point of [being] funny.
GF: My favorite is always the "I can't talk, I'm driving." They'll answer the phone and then you start asking questions and they're like: "I'm actually in a meeting right now." And we've been on the phone for like five minutes already. Now decided you're in a meeting? Okay. But yeah, I mean, you call up the Ministry of Environment? They say, "That's a question for the forestry administration." We call the forestry administration. They say, "Oh, no, that's actually for the Ministry of Agriculture." And he called them up and they're like, "Oh, no, no, no, you guys got it all wrong. It's definitely the land management ministry you need to speak to," and then no one can reach the land management ministry. That's the government: very rarely forthcoming with answers. I've learned to just sort of work around the idea that there will be no government input on a story. Just as a standard, the best I'm probably going to get is no comments. Occasionally, you might get just a flat out denial of everything you've reported on, kind of nonsensical, like, "There is no large-scale illegal logging happening in Cambodia," when I'm showing you satellite images of large-scale illegal logging.
AD: I'm relatively new to Cambodia. So I'm still desperately trying to get those government comments. I haven't given up yet. You'll never get anything detailed for sure. If you say, "I went to this forest and this occurred, and what do you think of it?" Nothing. The best you'll get is a broad statement. The second you get into specifics, like showing satellite images, the interview’s off.
EW: Gerry, you mentioned, in terms of working around the government, one bartending interlocutor. How do you meet people like that? Do you just strike up a conversation where it's like, "I'm reporting a story”? How do you cultivate those kinds of relationships in spaces that feel so tense, especially like a bar, where the last thing you'd want is to invite "trouble”?
GF: I mean, we've been quite fortunate. There's a lot I would put down from the skill of my Cambodian colleagues who are very good at putting people at ease, kind of getting them to open up and trust. For that particular one, the bar, we’d booked a guest house near this timber depot, and found the bar nearby. And it was the same owner of the guesthouse. So we initially didn't say we were journalists, we just had some drinks with the owner. And then the next day, they were like, "Oh, yeah, like, I'll go out and get us some like squids and fish for lunch if you guys want lunch," so we just kind of played the tourist card. And then after the second night, we were drinking with him again, and said, "Hey, look, we're going to level with you. We're actually here to look into illegal logging." And he was like, "Oh, my God. Yeah, I know so many people involved in that. Some of my best friends are loggers and poachers. I'll bring them to meet you." But some of it's just luck, you know. Right person, and they kind of connect you to other people that you need. A lot of it is, like Anton said, building that relationship. And in Cambodia, I think that's quite a difficult feat because a lot of the time there is that mistrust around journalists. There are local journalists who would look into something like illegal logging, not for the intention of reporting on it, but basically for extorting money out of the people involved. They'll say, "Look, we have evidence to prove you're involved in smuggling, we'll publish it, but if you pay like $300, then maybe we won't publish it.”
AD: Yeah, I would say and this is where the Pulitzer Center comes in so handy. It's just time. Five out of 10 people you'll speak to are not super helpful. And then other times, you just get super lucky. One of the Rangers I was speaking with in a sanctuary was showing me how to get away with illegal snaring and poaching in protected areas. And I asked, "How do you know this?" And he goes "Oh, I used to do this." The story finally came out. I had been sitting with a former poacher-turned-Ranger for an entire day, and I had no idea. After cracking a couple of jokes and spending the whole day with him, we got him to relax and now we have his Telegram and anytime we go back there, we definitely get in touch.
GF: I'd also rather cautiously add that beer is a great icebreaker. When we were looking into this hydropower dam, we were trying to find people who are working on it. Again, it was raining, so there's no one working there yet. We just went to a shop for two cases of beer and drove around until we saw some guys outside a house, and sat down with them, like, "Would you like a beer?" And they're like, "Yes," and then turns out they all worked on the dam as truck drivers. They had nothing to do because it was raining and they couldn't drive the trucks. And then they explained to us exactly how the dam works [and] when they were doing the dynamiting, which was super helpful to know, because we were planning on going and trying to get into the site at the time that they were dynamiting.
"And I'm sitting there thinking, ‘Wow, I dreamed about international journalism my entire life, and now I'm sitting here with a fake pack of cigarettes that I don't know how to smoke trying to turn strangers into sources.’" —Anton Delgado, RIN Fellow
AD: Gerry, you'll love this. I actually have a ‘make friends’ pack of cigarettes that I carry around. When I see somebody smoking that looks like a source I want to speak to, I pretend to smoke and it's just me *cough* *cough* trying to be cool. "Do you want a cigarette?" You always move in with Marlboros. Make sure it's the fanciest smoke possible so that they obviously say yes. Then you get to chatting. And I'm sitting there thinking ‘Wow, I dreamed about international journalism my entire life, and now I'm sitting here with a fake pack of cigarettes that I don't know how to smoke trying to turn strangers into sources.’
EW: I guess this brings me to, obviously, you know, spend some time talking about personal relationships, but especially in Gerry's pieces. I know you've worked with a lot of satellite data, too, Anton. You manage to integrate a whole lot of video, data, and photos into a long-form written piece. How does that work? Are you meeting people first and then retroactively trying to figure out the geolocation and these really intricate networks of corruption? Or is it first the research, then you go to the site? Or is it all out of order?
GF: I would love to be able to sit here and say like there's a process to it, but it's really a lot more chaotic. It depends on sort of where the lead of the story comes from, [or] if it's an issue that's already been covered. [From there],we kind of know where to go, then we probably could go seek some people [and] see what's going on on the ground. I am currently looking into the garment sector's role in deforestation, as they use a lot of wood to boil the water to make steam and iron the clothes—huge volumes of it. And there are well over 1,000 factories across Cambodia. I can roughly guess where the wood has come from. Now we’re looking for anything that looks like a stash of wood outside the factory. But then, at the same time, like this afternoon, I've got an interview with a researcher who's looked at climate change in the garment sector.
Once we’ve gotten a few sites identified using satellite imagery, then we'll go down on the ground and follow the trucks that are delivering the wood to the factory, follow them back to the depot, interview the owner of the depot, and then wait for the depot to get a delivery to see who's bringing the wood in from the forest.
EW: And you're using image recognition algorithms, or are you trawling Google Maps? Or Places to Watch?
GF: I wish we had an algorithm. Google Earth Pro has the highest-resolution satellite imagery that we have available to us, but it's not very consistent. We also have Planet Explorer level two access through the Pulitzer Center, which is really good and interfaces nicely with QGIS. We can observe protected areas from satellites to see if they areclose to other kinds of areas of interest that we've been looking into. Those kinds of tools are really helpful for planning, and afterwards. But then we also have the networks of people involved.
We are very fortunate that the government maintains the Ministry of Commerce Business Registration Database, which has information like who owns a company, when it was registered, the company's identifying number, their address, the owner's home address. It's quite detailed. That, combined with Open Corporates, can do a lot in terms of figuring out people. The National Election Committee has a voter list. You can cross-reference details to make sure you’ve got the right person. Anton would probably agree that Cambodia's not the easiest place in terms of data transparency.
AD: The Globe has a bit more of a process because we have the design team. We use those same tools that Gerry mentioned, like Planet Explorer and QGIS, so we know what we would want to pull out from a field day. I often shoot my own stories, so we always plan out a shot list for these trips. For the first time, this month, we'll be publishing a story where I use QGIS for the first time and combine it with satellite imagery. Keng babysat me through how to churn out something on QGIS. He showed me how to pull coordinates and shapes off of government PDF files, which is mostly what we have access to, put that into QGIS, find where it is on the map, and then overlay it with new satellite imagery. And I thought, ‘Oh, this is so abundantly helpful. I'm sure Globe and Mongabay would have both invested in that technology if they knew it existed and that it can be taught.’ So I'm super excited to see that story go live, and now I actually know what to do the next time I come across protected areas and land exchanges. I know we can find them and look at the satellites. A lot of the tools that Pulitzer Center has offered up are game-changing.
"My Pulitzer Center relationship is the one of the most important professional relationships I have." —Anton Delgado, RIN Fellow
EW: Could you describe your partnership with the Center? Anton, I think you were a Reporting Fellow at one point.
AD: This is my second fellowship with The Pulitzer Center. I was a Campus Consortium Reporting Fellow from Elon University in 2020. I got to go to Brazil and report on the resurgence of leprosy. That is what got me involved with the Center. It was a program that my school had been offering only to seniors, so for my entire college career, I looked at that fellowship and thought, ‘Wow, that would be an incredible way to end my senior year.’
I was in Arizona on the environmental beat for the first time when the first RIN cohort launched. Incredibly, and not long thereafter, I accepted a new job in Cambodia. The second RIN application went live, and I knew I had to apply. The Pulitzer Center had already been on my radar, so that led to RIN. I was lucky enough to barely make it into the barrel of very talented journalists. And then this October, actually, I partnered with the Rainforest Journalism Fund for the first time. So I've actually dipped my toes into three different Pulitzer Center pools. It has been super exciting to get to know Detty and Harry. I'd say my Pulitzer Center relationship is the one of the most important professional relationships I have.
GF: It's been incredible for me, because the investigative side of things is where I've always wanted to push my career. Having a whole year to focus on one project is amazing. I just don't know where else you canget that opportunity. I can't see any editor or any publication supporting that. That you don't have to do anything else for a year just wouldn't happen. The training has been incredible. At the start of the year, I could barely use QGIS. Now, it's an integral part of every story I do. I will definitely be applying again. It's been awesome, honestly.
"Because of the Pulitzer Center, you've got the flexibility to be able to say, ‘All right, that part of the story fell through,' but then you can carry on and look at the other elements that are moving your heads." —Gerry Flynn, RIN Fellow
EW: Gerry, I know your project, too, has changed some since it was first conceived, and now you're pretty far along. It’s the rainy season after all. And that's been really interesting to watch, to see your writing shift dynamically with what you see on the ground.
GF: [We had suspected] those hydropower dams would be the source of illegal logging. It takes years to build them. I've still got all the shapefiles and QGIS. So every now and then, I'll fire up the satellite imagery and have a little look and compare it to a month before and see what's new. Because of the Pulitzer Center, you've got the flexibility to be able to say, well, ‘All right, that part of the story fell through,' but then you can carry on and look at the other elements that are moving your heads.
"What we're doing is the start of any potential solution. What we're doing as journalists is how change begins." —Anton Delgado, RIN Fellow
EW: How do you walk the line between journalism and activism? How do you stop yourself from outwardly telling or trying to show the full scale of the desecration to, for example, these log depot owners?
AD: I keep reminding myself that what we're doing is the start of any potential solution. What we're doing as journalists is how change begins. The first way to find a solution to a problem is to know and understand that the problem exists. That's what Gerry and I are trying to figure out. I keep reminding myself that, while activism is significant and activists do good work, the best thing that I can be doing to safeguard the resources that I care about, and the planet that I share with all of you is to be a journalist. It's very hard to tie impact to a specific story. But the longer that you are a journalist and the more people read your work, that does shape public opinion as well as action. That has happened for Gerry and I's stories in small ways. Impact might not be chartable, you can’t put it into a data sheet, but what we're doing is the beginning of how problems are solved. Gerry, how many times have you looked at past stories to influence or educate what you're writing now? We might be impacting journalists 10 years from now and not even know it. That's what I keep telling myself. Is that true? I believe it is.
GF: With Cambodia, you're never really going to achieve too much change with just one story. Or, really 100 stories—the government's got a pretty tight grip on power. And, unfortunately, a lot of the worst environmental abuses are either directly linked to the government or sanctioned by it. Activism here is also pretty anemic. A lot of the more hardcore activists have been jailed or murdered. Now you do have this slightly more formalized process of activism, which the government is very, very adept at dismissing. They've found a way to tolerate civil society while not really engaging with them or letting them have too much power. So yeah, for me, I think journalism makes more sense than activism. It's putting the facts out there for people, or anyone, to then go and do with those facts what they want. The government is probably not going to look at it and think, ‘Oh, yeah, maybe we shouldn't have filled all those lakes with sand.’ It just looks like a bunch of foreign agitators coming in and trying to rile up the people again to trouble.
"The way the Pulitzer Center forces, but also deeply encourages, collaboration is shifting mentality in certain newsrooms, especially smaller newsrooms." —Anton Delgado, RIN Fellow
EW: Do you have anything else you'd like to say on record?
AD: Something to note is that whenever Gerry and I cheers, we usually say "to radical collaboration," amen to Marina. That is definitely something The Pulitzer Center has reshaped in The Globe's perspective. Beforehand, The Globe wasn't really going after partner pieces, collaborations with other newsrooms, or co-publications. My editors are starting to shift because they're like, ‘Oh, we could not have covered that story without our partners. We couldn't have covered that story without funding from the Pulitzer Center.’ The way that our stories have interacted, both with local media, as well as finally getting our work translated, has really shifted the mentality. When we were in D.C., I spoke to a couple of journalists about this phenomenon and they agreed. The way the Pulitzer Center forces, but also deeply encourages, collaboration is shifting mentality in certain newsrooms, especially smaller newsrooms.
I pitch a story now, and my editors are like, "Oh, who are we partnering for that?" And I am absolutely thrilled because this is how we reach wider audiences. Of course, it's the easiest thing to not collaborate, to view newsrooms as competition and other journalists as opponents, but the Pulitzer Center’s “kumbaya” mentality is infectious because it's effective. That's the most beautiful thing. It's not infectious because we're idealists. It's infectious because it works. Though in a post-pandemic world, perhaps I shouldn't be using the word ‘infectious.’ But that's something that I really appreciate. I would hope to encourage more folks in smaller smaller newsrooms to apply.
GF: There was an interview with Rhett Butler, the founder [of Mongabay], this month, where he was saying that a lot of the value of environmental journalism today is coming from investigations. It's initiatives like the Pulitzer Center that are actually driving this more in-depth environmental journalism that is actually showing other news outlets, particularly legacy media, that there's an actual value to [environmental] journalism, it's not just got to be politics or other topics. Hopefully it will lead to some new developments along the way, which would be good.
EW: It would be great to build a post by the both of you. I look forward to that.
AD: Let’s keep choosing radical collaboration!