Led by a Canadian, law students report online from war zones | #childabductors

The stomach-churning footage on Twitter comes not just via TV news, but also courtesy of law students, all of whom are women. They’ve formed a front line of war reporters filing video, photos and stories of atrocities in Myanmar since the Feb. 1 military coup. And the publisher and devoted tweeter-in-chief of their coverage is a Canadian law professor at the University of Pittsburgh.

The law school community knows Bernard Hibbitts as a tech-savvy legal historian and award-winning teacher, but I know him as Bernie.

He was a year ahead of me at Halifax’s Queen Elizabeth High School. And in what may be a face-blushing revelation to the world, we were on the 1975 national championship Reach for The Top team (neither of us would have made the football team).

With a first-rate mind, plus a humble, quiet manner, Bernie always nailed the history and political questions (among others). He and our teammates, Andrew Graham and Kim Mohammed, could have put “Jeopardy’s” Ken Jennings to shame (I was lucky to be the fourth, picking up scraps).

But Reach for the Top was just the start for Hibbitts. A Rhodes Scholar with law degrees from Oxford, University of Toronto and Harvard, he was tapped to clerk for no less than the chief justice of Canada’s Supreme Court, Bora Laskin, and then Justice Gerald Le Dain.

In 1996, from his perch in Pittsburgh, Hibbitts launched a website that became JURIST, a legal news service powered by law student volunteers. Today, it boasts 80 student reporters and editors hailing from 29 law schools on five continents supervised by a tiny, professional staff Hibbitts leads when he’s not teaching.

In Myanmar, where law is an undergraduate subject, JURIST’s correspondents are 18 to 21 years old. All are women because an overwhelming percentage of Myanmar law students are female. To say they’ve been courageous isn’t a muscular enough word to describe their work; putting their lives at risk to report on what’s occurring in a ravaged state on the brink of civil war.

Since February’s coup, more than 700 civilians, including 40 children, have been killed by an army with a history of fighting its own people. Myanmar’s military force, the Tatmadaw, is more than 500,000 strong in a country of 54 million. More than 3,000 people have been arrested, charged or sentenced in connection with peaceful protests.

JURIST’s coverage from Myanmar has been riveting, not to mention deeply disturbing. Students have reported on marches and massacres of unarmed civilians, as well as arrests, abductions and criminal charges laid against public figures. When law student Myo Hein Kyaw was killed at a recent protest, they connected JURIST with an eyewitness, who exclusively described how the 24-year-old had been shot trying to protect a friend. He bled to death in prison and was buried in a mass grave.

While the students monitor and send dispatches from a combat zone, Hibbitts is in constant touch — “part editor, part producer, part law professor, and part friend-in-need.” He described hanging on “with them on WhatsApp when they’ve been hiding in houses after police cracked down on their protests,” watching and listening by video while people are being shot in the street.

“Sometimes the whole thing is like broadcasting to the French resistance in World War II. The back-channel to them is as important as what they and we are putting out online,” Hibbitts said.

Aside from Myanmar, JURIST has placed reporters worldwide. Hibbitts’ students in India conducted early interviews with his student correspondents in Myanmar. While Pittsburgh is JURIST’s headquarters, a Canadian base was recently established at the University of Calgary Law School.

Hibbitts said JURIST is “literally changing law students’ minds as we turn their attention to the outside world,” encouraging them to become more engaged in what is going on around them, something they’ve not always been.



“I’ve stopped predicting what we’re going to do next, but JURIST has absolutely no precedent in media or legal education anywhere that I’m aware of,” he said.

Still proudly Canadian after 30 years in the U.S., Hibbitts admits it may be no coincidence that JURIST’s organizational colours are red-and-white.

Follow Bernard Hibbitts on Twitter @bernardhibbitts and JURIST @JURISTnews. Howard Green is a bestselling author based in Toronto.

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