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Matthieu Aikins receives the 2014 Medill Medal for Courage in Journalism for Rolling Stone investigation

The 2014 Medill Medal for Courage in Journalism has been awarded to Matthieu Aikins for his story in Rolling Stone exposing alleged war crimes by U.S. Army Special Forces in Wardak Province in Afghanistan.  A team of judges on behalf of the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications at Northwestern University selected Aikins’ work, “The A-Team Killings,” published in the Nov. 6, 2013 issue of Rolling Stone.

The Medill Medal is given to the individual or team of journalists, working for a U.S.-based media outlet, who best displayed moral, ethical or physical courage in the pursuit of a story or series of stories.

Aikins makes the case that a 12-man U.S. Army Special Forces A-Team along with an Afghan translator committed war crimes in Wardak Province that included extra-judicial killings, torture and kidnapping. As a result of public outcry, Afghan President Hamid Karzai forced the A-Team to leave the area.  Not long afterward, human remains were discovered buried outside their base, remains that locals said belonged to men who had been taken by the Americans.

"This story wouldn't have been possible without my brave Afghan colleagues, as well as the support of Rolling Stone,” Aikins said. “I'd like to take this opportunity to highlight the fact that the U.S. military has still not announced any consequences as a result of their criminal investigation, despite the damning evidence of war crimes that we published."

Working independently on behalf of Rolling Stone, Aikins spent five dangerous months on the ground in the volatile Wardak Province interviewing dozens of eyewitnesses, victims, family members, local officials and a translator, Zakaria Kandahari, in Pul-e Charkhi prison, who accused his American employers of the killings. Aikins also gained information about confidential reports by the United Nations, the Red Cross and the Afghan government to corroborate his reporting and interviews.

Using photos he acquired from the web, corroborated by sources, Aikins then returned to Wardak Province, where victims were able to pick out members of the A-Team and identify individuals they alleged had been present during executions and interrogations.

Despite media coverage, prior to Aikins' story, the allegations had remained vague and unproven.  The investigation did not proceed and by summer, the story quietly slipped from the media--until the investigation appeared in Rolling Stone.

The U.S. military denied any wrongdoing by the A-Team and suggested insurgent propaganda was responsible for the allegations. In July 2013, the Army’s Criminal Investigation Command opened an un-publicized investigation into the allegations, coming months after categorical denials of U.S. responsibility. Aikins believes the investigators weren’t given adequate resources to do their job.

“Aikins’ innovative and intrepid techniques brought clarity to a subject that had been shrouded by the fog of war,” wrote Rolling Stone Deputy Managing Editor Sean Woods. “The result is an investigative masterwork that illuminates in an unprecedented manner the extreme violence of Afghanistan’s war-torn areas, giving voice to the war’s most voiceless victims – the illiterate and impoverished provincial farmers – while shedding light on the war’s darkest corner.”

Professor Donna Leff and Medill Board of Advisers members Richard Stolley and Ellen Soeteber judged the 2014 nominations and said they were impressed by Aikins’ exceptional courage, precision, diligence and integrity in reporting. They unanimously voted him the Medill Medal winner.  

“We found this to be a stunning piece of journalism, combining on-the-ground reporting with deep additional reporting involving documents and old-fashioned legwork,” the judges said in a statement.

The judges also commended finalists Rukmini Callimachi, reporting on al-Qaida’s papers in Mali for the Associated Press, and Alfred Corchado, reporting on Mexico’s violent drug cartels for the Dallas Morning News.

“Aikins and the runners up were really winners among an extremely strong group of applicants,” said Leff. “As a teacher of young journalists, I found it tremendously heartening, inspiring and really uplifting that we had such great entries. It shows that not only is a career in journalism still viable, but that a journalism career can bring achievement and success to people who continue to do public service and carry out the journalistic traditions that Medill has fostered. I found it to be an extremely positive side of the judging process.”

Aikins’ investigation re-invigorated interest in the case and spurred calls for a thorough investigation into the allegations by the Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. Aikins’ wrote that the U.S., “will do itself no favors by flinching from a full accounting for what happened in Wardak…the families of the missing men of Wardak deserve justice; the U.S. military can bolster its own standing in the country by giving it to them.” (http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/will-justice-be-served-in-the-a-team-killings-20131121)

The Medill Medal contest is open to journalists from newspapers, television stations, online news operations, magazines and radio stations. The story subjects may be local, national or international in scope. The winner receives $5,000. Past winning stories have been featured in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, the Associated Press and others.