2023 Winner

Yao-Hua Law

Entry type: Portfolio

Country/area: Malaysia

Publishing organisation: Macaranga Media Sdn Bhd

Organisation size: Small

Prize committee’s comments:

Data journalism in Malaysia has been elevated to another level since Yao Ha-Law began to lend his talent. To show this contribution, it is important to note that the focus of the work is on environmental issues in a country that has many needs in this area. By using visuals, precision journalism, and other tools, his production gives shape and concreteness to the issues.

An example of an initiative that projects Yao Ha-Law’s career is the creation of the Macaranga portal, addressing issues that have not been disclosed by any other communication vehicle. By publishing mainly about forestry data, the work of the award-winning professional is exquisite. With his denunciations, often being the only voice to divulge the subject, Yao Hua-Law managed to produce effective results, preventing the continuation of environmental crimes.

Cover letter:

I have been a science and environment journalist in Malaysia since 2014. I have mostly reported on ecology and public health for top science magazines, including a narrative feature on snakebite health burden in Indonesia that won the One World Media Award in 2020.

In 2019, Wong Siew Lyn and I co-founded Macaranga, an environmental journalism portal, to fill a gap in in-depth, data-driven and analytical environmental reporting in the country. When our reader interest survey singled out ‘deforestation’ as the top concern, we looked into the matter and started my years-long investigation on forest use and management in Peninsular Malaysia. At the time, no other Malaysian media provided accurate insights on the people or forces that drive forest use. Forestry data was often described as obscure and “confidential”, and the prevalent notion was that reporting on logging projects would trigger the wrath of tycoons, politicians, and royal families.

Our stories for Macaranga, supported by the Pulitzer Center, showed otherwise. I saw how foreign media like Guardian, Bloomberg, and Economist were combining data, satellite imagery, visualisations and storytelling to produce impactful environmental reporting. I attempted a similar approach – though without a freedom of information act in Malaysia, data remain largely limited and scattered. Still, I have been able to sniff out several sources of data (resource centers in government department), learn to analyse satellite images and GIS data in QGIS, use free tools like Flourish, Pinpoint, and others to scrape websites. With Siew Lyn as editor, we produced stories that were very data-driven and data-supported, and successfully transported readers to the locality using maps and engaging writing.

It might have been a coincidence, but since Macaranga started publishing, other Malaysian media began to include more graphs, maps, and satellite images in their environmental reporting too. Well, we are some of several people training journalists in Malaysia on data journalism and environmental reporting.

In 2022, my stories for Macaranga won Malaysia’s top journalism award – the Malaysian Press Institute Award Gold Prize for Excellence in Environmental Reporting. Macaranga had just turned 3 years old then. But the best news last year was that a company stopped their logging after we reported on them, and the Department of Environment initiated investigation on a royalty-associated company after we exposed that they had broke the law on an oil palm project.

Description of portfolio:

I am the sole reporter and I made almost all of the elements presented in the stories. Wong Siew Lyn edited all the stories. These projects investigated unsustainable use of forests in Peninsular Malaysia, and exposed systemic failures, illegal activity, or projects that hurt the state and communities but benefit the shareholders.

In “Forest Plantations in Reserves”, I showed that the governments’ forest plantation efforts have destroyed huge tracts of forests without achieving delivering any goals. Forest plantations are monoculture tree farms, and were meant to provide a sustainable timber supply. But I showed that governments only approved plantations inside reserves, and that two-thirds of the 185,000 ha cleared for plantations had been abandoned. Furthermore, genuine planters are struggling with their businesses and refuse to harvest timber as scheduled.

I analysed more than 40 years of forest plantation documents – government reports, conference papers, manuals, and scientific studies. I sought maps to check if and where plantations were destroying good forests. I combed through company financial statements and EIA reports of projects. I persuaded loggers and planters to explain the specifics of their projects; got government officers to confess that their data fails to reflect reality; and spoke with communities affected by forest plantations.

The work required data that is distributed without clear organisation across several government agencies. I had to go to these agencies, daily for weeks to comb their shelves. To convince loggers and planters, I spent days roaming in town.
A month before my publication, the government suddenly announced a halt on new forest plantation projects. My findings were used in a debate in state legislative assembly. And in the year after publication, as forest plantations hit the news often, journalists and policymakers refer to my stories for background.

For “Cutting Chini-Bera Forests…”, I revealed how the state government and Department of Environment have approved an oil palm project doomed to fail. That’s because the project had and will clear natural forests, which disqualifies it from mandatory sustainability certification in Malaysia. The forests there houses tigers, elephants, and hornbills. The site also houses two indigenous villages, some of whom claim they were tricked by the developer into signing letters of consent.

Digging into company documents and property ownership, I showed that the developer’s shareholder include royalty and a major Thai conglomerate that brands itself as a tiger defender in Thailand. I made accurate maps and gathered satellite images of the deforestation, and used the evidence to prod Malaysian oil palm regulators into responding: they denounced the project.

After publication, the developer didn’t exercise their rights to start logging. A major conservation group suspended its partnership with the Thai conglomerate. And lawyers for the indigenous villagers are using my stories and data to build their court case.

In the third project, “Drains Dug, Trees Cut, Now Let’s it Approved”, I exposed a developer for clearing forests and planting oil palm before it even submitted the mandatory environmental impact assessment (EIA). This was a risky story to report on because the Sultan of the state and his family own the developer and the land. The evidence and data I present must be extra solid.

I extracted location, names, and dates of legal procedures out of the project’s EIA report. I used satellite images to identify progress of deforestation. Then I used a drone to snap images of the development. But the drone limited range meant I had to enter the plantations, posing as a birder, to get exact coordinates of the site’s border and see the palm saplings planted. I also spoke with workers and locals.

The story prompted the Department of Environment to investigate the developer.

Project links: