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How a group of journalists is documenting war crimes in Ukraine


Investigators appointed by the U.N. have confirmed that Russian armed forces have committed war crimes in Ukraine. They have documented civilian executions, torture and sexual violence. Another group in a unique position to track atrocities in Ukraine is journalists. The Reckoning Project exists to train journalists to collect not just their stories but also evidence of war crimes that can be used in international court. One of its creators is a longtime war correspondent, Janine di Giovanni, and she joins us now. Jeanine, thank you for being here.

JEANINE DI GIOVANNI: Thank you so much for having me.

SUMMERS: So, Jeanine, I'm wondering if you could just start by telling us what motivated you to start The Reckoning Project.

DI GIOVANNI: Well, 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. Now, 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.

SUMMERS: Can you just walk us through what is different about covering war crimes as a journalist and, say, the types of documentation and evidence that's done by a legal investigator?

DI GIOVANNI: 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.

SUMMERS: I'd like to ask you, do you believe that war correspondents have a responsibility in the legal prosecution of war criminals compared to, say, someone who is a reporter in the United States on a city or a crime beat?

DI GIOVANNI: I do, actually. I absolutely do believe that war reporters who witness these things have a kind of responsibility. It's a moral responsibility. And there's many - 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.

SUMMERS: You have discussed how your project aims to meet at the intersection of storytelling and legal accountability. And to some people, that might seem like two distinctly different jobs, one being journalism, the other activism. Do you draw the line between the two, and can one be both?

DI GIOVANNI: If you're asking a journalistic ethics committee, I'm sure they'd have a different answer. But personally, for 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.

SUMMERS: Janine di Giovanni is director of The Reckoning Project and a longtime correspondent from many warzones. Janine, thank you for being here.

DI GIOVANNI: Thank you so much, Juana.

(SOUNDBITE OF J DILLA SONG, "REBIRTH OF DETROIT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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]