Athens, Ga. – Rukmini Callimachi, West Africa bureau chief for the Associated Press, was honored with the McGill Medal for Journalistic Courage on April 18 at the University of Georgia Grady College for Journalism and Mass Communication.
The wire service reporter often has sacrificed her safety while covering stories on her beat, documenting mass killings, exposing child trafficking, and illuminating struggles from earthquakes and hurricanes.
AP editor Mary Rajkumar noted Callimachi’s immense courage when nominating her for the award. She wrote, “Rukmini found proof of mass killings in the Ivory Coast by braving government minders to try to get into the morgues. She reported from a hotel where she was trapped during the conflict, positioning her satellite phone out the window despite the gunfire whizzing by. She followed a trail of corpses that led to evidence of another massacre, at the risk of coming across the killers.”
The McGill Medal is named for Ralph McGill, late editor and publisher of the Atlanta Constitution, who was regarded by many as “the conscience of the South” for his editorials challenging racial segregation in the 1950s and 1960s.
Speaking at the ceremony, Callimachi said, “I am so grateful to the University of Georgia for this award which honors the memory of Ralph McGill. In remembering this courageous editor, this medal highlights the importance of going off that beaten path and of taking risks, both in terms of personal safety and professional risks. In this time when newsrooms-including my own-are constantly shrinking, it allows us to remember that the value of in-depth reporting is still there.”
She also discussed the Ivory Coast, the contentious elections that were taking place between two leaders and the massacre that occurred as a result.
“We started hearing stories of awful things being committed in the name of Alassane Ouattara, the Democratic-elected leader of the Ivory Coast,” she said. “It was hard to accept that the man who had been the good guy all along had become something else.”
She explained how she and her group went in search of where one massacre occurred. “We took off on May 15 for the river. When we started walking, we started running into streams of refugees all consistently telling the same story. Then we started passing the bodies on our left and our right on the trail. Is this courage? To me it’s just a series of steps. A tip toe forward to the edge of the ledge and you look across and you decide to go further-step by step.”
Callimachi’s selection for the McGill Medal was made by the 2011 class of McGill Fellows, 12 Grady College undergraduate and graduate students chosen for academic achievement, practical experience and leadership.
The McGill Fellows were impressed that “…Callimachi frequently sacrificed her safety for her stories,” said Satyam Kaswala, the McGill Fellow who researched the nomination, “…operating on the principle that tragedies and disasters are important because of the people they affect.”
Honors for journalistic courage are nothing new for Callimachi. She received the 2011 Eugene S. Pulliam Journalism Writing Award for an article on the collapse of Haiti’s Hotel Montana and the earthquake victims found there. She was a finalist for the 2010 Batten Medal for her “…compassion, courage humanity and a deep concern for the underdog,” and a finalist for the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting for an “…in-depth investigation of the exploitation of impoverished children in West and Central Africa who are often traded like animals by adults who prize their labor.”
Born in Romania and raised in Switzerland and the U.S, Callimachi is a graduate of Dartmouth College and holds a master’s degree in linguistics from Oxford University’s Exeter College. She joined the Associated Press in 2003.
The McGill Medal, now in its fourth year, is the latest development in the growth of the McGill program at UGA’s Grady College. For 31 years, the McGill Lecture has brought significant figures in journalism to UGA to help the university honor McGill’s courage as an editor. In 2007, UGA added the McGill Symposium, bringing together students, faculty and leading journalists to consider what journalistic courage means and how reporters and editors exemplify it. In 2009, the first McGill Medal was awarded to a U.S. journalist whose career has exemplified journalistic courage-Jerry Mitchell, a Mississippi journalist who has endured death threats for bring civil rights-era killers to justice.
“All of this is for a single purpose: to advance journalistic courage,” said John F. Greenman, Carter Professor of Journalism. Greenman and Diane H. Murray, the Grady College’s director of public service and outreach, oversee the McGill program.
The program’s website is at www.grady.uga.edu/mcgill.
Established in 1915, the UGA Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication offers undergraduate majors in journalism, advertising, public relations, digital and broadcast journalism, and mass media arts. The college offers two graduate degrees and is home to the Knight Chair in Health and Medical Journalism and the Peabody Awards, internationally recognized as one of the most prestigious prizes for excellence in electronic media. For more information, see www.grady.uga.edu.