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Reports from the front

Reports from the front
Bernard Hibbitts ALL PICS: Tom Altany/University of Pittsburgh

Jurist editor-in-chief Bernard Hibbitts



Law students in conflict zones are working as on-the-ground reporters for US publication, Jurist. Editor-in-chief Bernard Hibbitts speaks to Mary Hallissey about the challenges and dangers they face on a daily basis.

A network of law-student journalists is producing on-the-ground reporting from troubled corners of the globe, as a result of the endeavours of the publisher and editor-in-chief of Jurist, based out of the University of Pittsburgh.

Reports from the front
Jurist office (pre COVID)

Reports from the front

Canadian-born Bernard Hibbitts is a legal history academic at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. Jurist is an online legal news service, which began in 1996 in the early internet era. The professor now has a volunteer staff of 90 students operating from 30 different law schools around the globe, many in troubled regions.

“Traditionally, law students do other things, they study and work,” Prof Hibbitts explained. “But we engaged them to do news because we believe that it’s an important way of connecting them with the outside world and engaging them with issues that are going on right outside their classrooms.”

Fewer than 10% come in with journalistic skills, but Jurist trains them from scratch.

Tremendous transparency

“Law school can be a very isolating experience because it does tend to cut you off, and it pushes you into a particular area,” Hibbitts says.

“We’re trying to encourage undergrads to do something that is a public service. There are many similarities between good lawyers and good journalists. You’re out there assessing evidence and judging credibility. We can go in on the ground in a variety of different locations and that’s very, very helpful,” he says. “There is a tremendous transparency in all of this.”

He describes a strong reciprocal bond with his team of law student reporters. Regardless of what happens, he will stick with them: “We will stay on the line. That’s what you do in an emergency,” he says.

“Prior to 2018, Jurist was primarily based here in Pittsburgh. It was a good, locally based project for our law students, but as law-school enrolments began to decrease in the US, we thought we needed to find a broader staff base, so we started tentatively to reach out to a couple of law schools in our local area. They all wanted to be involved in one form or another, so we actively started to recruit, in Los Angeles, Nevada, and Florida.”

Working digitally, it became easier to pull in law students as reporters. Emerging communication tools made it easier for Hibbitts to train would-be journalists, using video and instant-messaging.

The advent of COVID in March 2020 was “absolutely transformative” he says, because everybody came onto the virtual playing field where Jurist had been operating for decades.

“We started to get solicitations from law students in faraway places – India, for instance. We developed really good relations with them. We had thought about expanding internationally as long as ten years ago, but the technology didn’t really exist to do it easily. We could have done it, but at a huge cost,” he explains.

Quite suddenly, the Jurist model could be scaled and distributed globally. The publication soon had correspondents filing from Australia, Canada, Kenya and India.

Conflict zone

In February 2020, there was a military coup in Myanmar. Hibbitts learned that law students there had competed in international moot courts. He realised that these law students could help to report on the crisis in the rule of law in that country.

They began to write reports in real time, using a variety of different media, about what was happening during protests in Myanmar. “It was absolutely amazing stuff, and scary as heck,” Prof Hibbitts says.

When the protests were suppressed, the law students had to hunker down, but carried on giving information to Jurist, essentially filing reports from a conflict zone.

But Hibbitts was more than a bureau chief dealing with foreign correspondents – he was also a professor dealing with law students. He understood that he had to protect them, and he worried continually about them, despite their anonymised accounts in the field. Steps were taken to make sure that IP addresses were not traceable. The key was not only to take care of the students’ physical safety, but also their mental wellbeing.

“If you’re in my position as a professor, you are conscious of your responsibility to deal with students carefully and positively, to keep their spirits up. They were cut off from their law schools. It was almost like broadcasting from the French Resistance in World War Two. These people on the ground are not just reporting, they are struggling, they are fighting.”

Hibbitts had to sustain the law students and make them viable as correspondents in the field. “What makes it more complicated is that most of these law students in Myanmar are women. Because of the nature of the society, the men go into engineering, or become doctors, or go into the military,” he explains.

He had the worry of managing these bright, ambitious young women already doing remarkable things, such as leading the protests on the streets. “It was remarkably challenging – fascinating in so many ways – but yes, extremely scary,” he now acknowledges.

The fall of Kabul

When Afghanistan tipped over into crisis during the summer, Prof Hibbitts found himself as the news editor of a team of reporters with feet on the ground in that country.

As the Taliban approached Kabul in August, Prof Hibbitts began using his network. “The day Kabul fell, we had law students on the ground talking to us about the fall of the city,” he says.

Jurist quickly had a team of up to 15 Afghan law students filing reports in real time from various places around the country, explaining what was going on. “This was a predictable consequence of what we were doing. Eventually, you will be in the right place, and we were already in the right place in Myanmar, with students trapped in houses literally where confrontations were taking place with demonstrators, watching bodies being carried past the door.”

This was tremendous raw material, Hibbitts says, and involved verification processes to vet both writers and their stories. “For them, it was important, because they were documenting what was happening in their country and to their country. They wanted to reach out and explain, because they didn’t want to be alone.”

Now that the Taliban is in charge, Jurist is getting other types of news, but the ongoing concerns about students’ personal safety remain.

“You’re on the bleeding edge of the law, literally,” Hibbitts says. “We have the capacity to do this because law students are everywhere. I almost hate to say this, but we can only fight a couple of wars at a time.”

The whole Jurist operation is managed on a shoestring, involving Prof Hibbitts and a few student part-time volunteers. He also carries a full teaching load, so the publication is essentially edited in his spare time.

“There is a very small professional supervisory staff, and another member of the law faculty who is an executive editor. It’s a tiny, tiny operation that is punching way above its weight,” Hibbitts says.

World’s biggest class

In an interesting development, the law students in Myanmar have begun to talk to the law students in Afghanistan, comparing notes about their situations.

Both groups have experienced the same sudden social disruption that smashes the lives of law students, and of young women in particular.

“It is a very widespread group, but it’s also tightly knit. These students are all remarkably similar, they are engaged, they are publicly oriented, they are optimistic and ambitious. They want to communicate with each other, and so I feel they cohere very well. There’s a lot that unites these students across boundaries.

“From my perspective, this is the world’s biggest class. Usually in legal education, international environments are competitive in some way, such as in moot courts. Nobody expects a law school to be doing something like this,” he says. “Who said law schools can’t do news?” he jests.

“Law schools are boxes – they separate students from everything and everyone else. This is a way to break down those walls. Here, law students are engaged in a common project, and they are working together over the long term. That opens all kinds of possibilities to change the entire way things operate. It’s going to encourage the law students to work together and give them networks and connections globally.”

Disintegration of the future

The students in Afghanistan have faced the disintegration of their future – the firms and judicial positions where they would have worked no longer exist.

“They have to face the prospect of retooling or leaving,” Prof Hibbitts says. “At a stroke, virtually the entire legal system has been wiped out. This is actually even worse than in Myanmar because there, the legal system was co-opted but left intact, and a lawyer or judge could still operate.

“In Afghanistan, it’s the Taliban running the courts. The law students looking at this are horrified because there’s no more due process, there’s no representation, there’s no deliberation.

“The nature of the punishments is changing, from some degree of imprison-ment and or sanction system, to a system based on shaming and humiliation, corporal punishment and hanging.

“All of that is coming in suddenly, and Afghanistan is not what it was 20 years ago. It’s gone through change, and these students represent that change. It’s very challenging for them, and they are literally facing the prospect of having to reinvent themselves in a way that’s even more dramatic and traumatic than that being faced by the Myanmar students. Their futures have been jeopardised, their dreams are in question, their lives, to some extent, are in question.”

A lifeline

“These students are extraordinarily challenged and yet, amid all of that, they want to talk to us, they want to work with us. They see us as a lifeline of sorts, and I think that’s terrific. They are very impressive people, they’re very smart, they’re very determined, they’re very articulate.

“The quality of the students in both conflict areas is extraordinary. It’s been a pleasure and a privilege to work with them,” Prof Hibbitts says. “They have educated me as much as they have educated the world.”

He believes their established connection to their communities will change their roles as lawyers and turn them into leaders. “This is radical reconnection in real time,” he says. “They will overcome these things, one way or another. They are all remarkable men and women. They will either stay there and change the situation, or they will get out and do something else. They are going to persevere.” 

Mary Hallissey is a journalist with the Law Society Gazette

Read and print a PDF of this article here.