Annenberg awards Reuters team for series on Nigerian war crimes

A team at Reuters News Agency received the Selden Ring Award for Investigative Journalism on Monday.

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On Monday, USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism awarded the Selden Ring Award for Investigative Journalism to the Reuters team behind an explosive four-part series about atrocities committed by the Nigerian military.

Published in December last year by the international news agency, the Reuters series titled “Nightmare in Nigeria” unveiled the alleged war crimes by the Nigerian military in their conflict with the Islamic insurgent group Boko Haram. These included secret, forced mass abortions, sexual violence and the killing of children.

This is Reuters’ first Selden Ring Award. The award itself, which is a partnership with the Ring Foundation, began in 1989 and awards $50,000 to its winning journalists. The award was presented during a webinar hosted by Annenberg this week.

Journalists Paul Carsten, Libby George, Reade Levinson and David Lewis found documentation that revealed that over 10,000 women and girls had had their pregnancies — which were often the result of abductions and rape from Boko Haram militants — forcibly terminated by the Nigerian government without their knowledge or consent following the women’s rescue. Meanwhile, the journalists spoke with more than 40 soldiers and civilians who revealed that they witnessed corpses and the deaths of Nigerian children at the hands of the military.

Boko Haram is an Islamist militant organization based in Nigeria, categorized as a terrorist group by the United States Embassy. The organization has been active in Nigeria and neighboring countries since the early 2000s, and was deemed the world’s deadliest terror group during part of the mid 2010s by the Global Terrorism Index.

Julie Marquis, the series’ co-editor, accepted the award on behalf of their team. In an interview with Annenberg Media, she detailed the explosiveness of the story, and the ambitions behind their work.

“We wanted everyone to know what was going on in Nigeria, and we didn’t pull any punches on that,” she said. “We didn’t sit around thinking, ‘Oh, we shouldn’t include this because it’s going to repulse or frighten people. We thought the world needed to know precisely what was going on.”

The story sparked a strong reaction to the piece from the Nigerian government. “We were accused of trying to undermine the fight against terrorists, of having an agenda that was contrary to that of the Nigerian government. We were accused of bullying and imperialist behavior,” Marquis said.

But according to Marquis, the obstacles they faced were minor to those of the witnesses who spoke to them. “The main [obstacle was] the trauma that was suffered by the victims of these atrocities,” she said. “Their fear, their emotional vulnerability, their physical vulnerability. And I guess my greatest observation … was my tremendous awe at their bravery, the bravery of the people who came forward.”

Marquis spoke on the importance of speaking with the individuals committing these injustices.

“We needed to make these stores complete, and we needed to make them unassailable, and what better way to do that than to speak with the people who are actually perpetrating the alleged war crimes,” Marquis said during the webinar. “To illustrate their viewpoints is not to try to justify what they did or explain it, it is just to try to understand, provide context for why atrocities might occur.”

According to Marquis, none of the reporters suffered violence, and all their sources are currently safe.

Gordon Stables, USC Annenberg’s director of journalism, said in the webinar that “[Marquis] and the Reuters team made a significant impact by creating a public record of atrocities that might otherwise have gone unacknowledged.”

With all the risks the team took to cover this story, some feel that the award is more than appropriate for their endeavors. Mark Schoofs, a visiting professor of journalism at USC and a moderator of the webinar, commented on this.

“Reporting this in an area that is under constant government surveillance, the difficulty of getting this story and the stakes of getting this story were just so high that I do think that it deserved to win this year’s award,” he said.

Selden Ring Investigative Journalism Fellowship awardee Grace Murray, a master’s student studying journalism at USC, helped to moderate the event alongside Schoofs. She spoke to Annenberg about the groundbreaking investigative work accomplished throughout the piece.

Investigative journalism “is one of the foundations of journalism,” Murray said. “Through investigative journalism, you’re finding out where there’s wrongdoing and addressing it, which is so important.”

Murray spoke on the importance of using a journalistic platform to shed light on marginalized communities.

“In the story in particular, you have subjects that are actively at risk and actively in danger … and the reporters … gave these women voices and allowed them to share their stories while also protecting them,” she said.

The Nigerian Government has denied the validity of the claims made in the Reuters Article.

“The Federal Government hereby categorically states that there is no ‘secret, systematic and illegal abortion programme’ being run by our military in the northeast or anywhere across the country,” Lai Mohammed, the Nigerian Information Minister said in a statement.

To Nigerian students at USC, the Reuter’s story serves as a reminder of the corruption and danger Nigerian citizens are all too used to.

“Nigeria is a very corrupt country,” Burabari Yorka said, the Co-Event Coordinator for USC’s Nigerian Student Association. Yorka touched on a long history of violence and corruption within Nigeria pre-dating the actions of Boko Haram, which forced her parents to emigrate to the United States as refugees.

However, Yorka believes that positive change is on the horizon, with Peter Obi’s 2022 presidential campaign — which was supported by many young Nigerians across the country.