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Journalists are being trained to gather evidence of war crimes — starting in Ukraine

A cemetery worker takes a rest from working on the graves of civilians killed in Bucha during the war with Russia, in the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine, in April.
Rodrigo Abd
A cemetery worker takes a rest from working on the graves of civilians killed in Bucha during the war with Russia, in the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine, in April.

Investigators appointed by the United Nations have confirmed that Russian armed forces have committed war crimes in Ukraine, including documented cases of civilian executions, torture and sexual violence.

But there is another group in a unique position to track atrocities in Ukraine — journalists. The Reckoning Project is a training program that exists to teach journalists not just to collect information for their stories, but also evidence of war crimes that can be used in international courts.

One of its creators is a longtime war correspondent, Janine di Giovanni, who joined All Things Considered for an interview to share the significance of expanding war crimes documentation.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

A view inside the Mariupol theater damaged during fighting in Ukraine.
Alexei Alexandrov / AP
A view inside the Mariupol theater damaged during fighting in Ukraine.

Interview highlights

On the motivation behind starting the Reckoning Project

It was really motivated out of deep frustration and sorrow. I'd been reporting war for more than 30 years and witnessing three genocides, essentially Bosnia, Rwanda and the slaughter of the Yazidis.

I had done something like the Reckoning Project in Iraq, Yemen and Syria for the United Nations. But the Reckoning Project is far more advanced. And we are working with Ukrainian investigative journalists. We've trained them so that their work will adhere to international legal standards. And then we're building cases.

On the differences between covering war crimes as a journalist and presenting that information to a legal investigation

There really is a lot that is very different. Some of the really important things. First of all, you cannot interview a witness who's been traumatized. So the number of times I have been a journalist and, say, been in a hospital in Iraq where a child has just suffered grievous injuries following a rocket attack. And TV reporters were there with cameras like right in the kid's face, and we would never do things like that.

We've developed a very careful template for our methodology, which is essentially questions, but they're not leading questions. So no leading questions, no trauma. Journalists have this tremendous skill, which is interviewing. But there was a real gap between the ability that journalists have, and their ability to submit their evidence to courts of law.

And I know this because I was called to The Hague several times for wars in Sierra Leone, for Bosnia, for Kosovo. And often my notebooks just weren't up to scratch. They were great notebooks for fact-checkers, but they weren't good notebooks for lawyers.

On whether war correspondents have a responsibility in the legal prosecution of war criminals

I absolutely do believe that war reporters who witness these things have a kind of responsibility. It's a moral responsibility. And I have many colleagues who said to me, you know, "Look, I'm not a social worker and I am just a reporter and I'm here to bring the facts." That's fine. Also, there are the issues of impartiality and neutrality and objectivity. For me, it was always a very different thing. It was more about bringing a voice to people that didn't have a voice, and it was about bearing witness.

On toeing the line between journalism and activism

If you're asking a journalistic ethics committee, I'm sure they'd have a different answer. But personally, from my own career, I don't consider myself an activist. I consider myself a human rights defender.

It's what I've always done. From my very first assignment, my mentor was an Israeli lawyer, and she said to me a line that changed my life forever: If you have the ability to go to these places and report on it and bring back the truth, then you have a responsibility. I took that to heart.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
Kai McNamee
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
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