Russian interference in Madagascar: Gaëlle Borgia’s investigation wins the Pulitzer Prize

TV5MONDE: How did you react to the announcement of the Pulitzer Prize? Did you expect it?

Gaëlle Borgia: No, I didn’t expect it at all. It was a huge surprise, I was in shock. To be honest, it never crossed my mind to get such a prize. I was surprised, especially since I learned about it the same day. It was even more incredible.

When someone, and especially a Westerner, comes offering money, it is very difficult to refuse.
Gaëlle Borgia, TV5MONDE correspondent in Madagascar

TV5MONDE: What is the subject of your investigation?

Gaelle Borgia : We have managed an investigation in Madagascar, into Russian interference during the presidential election in 2018. It was discovered that several groups of Russians settled in Madagascar, several months before the presidential election. They lived there, we found the hotel where they were staying permanently. They therefore began to approach presidential candidates, offering them money. They sometimes brought bags full of cash. For example, they offered them to pay a deposit, compulsory to run for president.

They offered logistical assistance, technical assistance and presented themselves as election experts. They told the teams of certain candidates that they had already worked in elections, in Africa in particular. This is how they quickly gained the trust of certain candidates. You should know that in Madagascar, an electoral campaign is very expensive. When someone, and especially a Westerner, comes offering money, it is very difficult to refuse. Finding funds elsewhere is almost impossible. To campaign in Madagascar, you have to travel a lot, as in any electoral campaign. The roads here are bad, for example. So, you have to rent private planes, 4×4 cars. So we need a lot of money, which the Russians have proposed.

So it was a godsend for some candidates. We have shown how this plot was made, how this vast operation of electoral interference was carried out in Madagascar. It was actually done on several levels. And we managed, with sources, key witnesses, presidential candidates, to show how they operated on a daily basis.

The interference was notably in the media. They paid for the production and broadcasting of television reports, in favor of certain candidates. They regularly printed a free newspaper, which was distributed outside the capital. There were hundreds of thousands of copies printed! They had a lot of money for this electoral interference operation. There was obviously propaganda on Facebook as well. It was a very concrete set of things. These men were visible, they weren’t even hiding anymore. You could see them at campaign meetings, for example. Our investigation lasted several months, we approached the sources, little by little, to arrive at this result.

We have often been told that these Russians did not give their last name. The Malagasy staff of the candidates only knew their first names.
Gaëlle Borgia, TV5MONDE correspondent in Madagascar

TV5MONDE: You said that these men were not hiding and yet, reading the survey, we understand that some witnesses do not dare to speak with their faces uncovered. What were the main difficulties you encountered?

Gaelle Borgia : That’s what was a bit paradoxical. Everyone knew the Russians were there. Everyone saw them. Photos of them were circulating on Facebook, with some astonishment. But, when we tried to find out a little more, the doors closed. Our sources told us explicitly that they were afraid that something would happen to them. I think they were told not to reveal the names of these Russians. For example, we were often told that these Russians did not give their last name. The Malagasy staff of the candidates only knew their first names. They knew very little about these men. We were sometimes told that they looked like barbouses, that they were a little scary, we did not know what they were doing there.

There is perhaps also a whole imagination around the Russians, through the films, which has played out. The sources were basically scared, and did not wish to speak. Little by little, we managed to untie the tongues. But it is true that we have often had anonymous testimonies. Some people were apprehensive and asked me regularly: “Gaëlle, what are you going to say in your article? Am I going to have problems? I’m afraid. Be careful what you say.” But I never really understood why, actually. They never told me that they received threats from the Russians. It was quite irrational.

TV5MONDE: In the survey, we also understand that this destabilization campaign was not necessarily well prepared by these men. Was it due to a lack of knowledge of the terrain?

Gaelle Borgia : I would speak of a lack of knowledge of the country. Initially, they thought that the outgoing president (Hery Rajaonarimampianina, editor’s note) would be the winner. This is what we know. They had therefore put their marbles on this candidate. Except that in fact, he was not a favorite. A poll that came out a few months before the presidential election gave him fourth. This poll was censored at the time! It was clear that it was going to be difficult for the outgoing president to get to the second round. And they did not anticipate it.

I got the impression that they were groping a bit. They tried to approach a lot of small candidates. I would say they may have wasted their time working with candidates who had next to no chance. Just before the first round, they realized that their colt was not going to win, and they changed their minds, starting to support one of the two finalists. It was done as they worked there. I had the impression of a great improvisation, when they had the means, that they were quite numerous and that they presented themselves as electoral experts. It was quite paradoxical.

TV5MONDE: What was the goal of these Russians, and did they achieve their goals?

Gaëlle Borgia: What we know is that several months before the 2018 election campaign, they were interested in mines. In particular, they tried to find out more about a gold mine called Dabolava, which is an unexploited mining square. They met the director of the company that owns this mining area, to obtain the operating permit, without success. They then succeeded in forming a joint venture with a Madagascan company which manages a chrome mine. So there were several attempts. They were successful for the chrome mine. This joint venture was created. They managed to have 80% of the mine, and they started to work there, with the Malagasy people.

It didn’t go very well. There were several financial problems, and they ended up giving up. We know that the chrome mine has been shut down for several months and we are told that the Russians are leaving, it is even confirmed. The mine is expected to be sold to other companies. In the end, all their electoral interference efforts did not yield much, since there are big failures on this chrome mine. They thought they were getting a lot from this mine, about ten thousand tonnes of chromium a year, and it flopped. From what I know, they are very disappointed with what happened in Madagascar, when they invested a lot of money in this electoral interference operation.

TV5MONDE: How did you find yourself investigating this subject for the New York Times ?

Gaëlle Borgia: I had started investigating the subject for another media, just before I was contacted. The journalist of New York Times, Michael Schwirtz, was looking for a local contact. He was looking for a fixer actually in Madagascar, to help him investigate. By chance, he contacted Americans there, and one thing leading to another, it happened to me. It is really thanks to the network that I have maintained for years, and its request has come to me. I immediately accepted because it is already a prestigious journal, and I knew this subject very well. It was an opportunity to go even further than what I had done before. It was a great opportunity for me. So we started to investigate together.

TV5MONDE: How long did the whole investigation last?

Gaelle Borgia : Between the time Michael Schwirtz contacts me and the time the article comes out, nine months have passed. But we didn’t work nine straight months. Sometimes for weeks we had nothing, and then a source would agree to speak. I sent him a message and then dig into the subject.

TV5MONDE: How are you working in Madagascar, at the moment with the coronavirus pandemic?

Gaelle Borgia : There has been a lockdown here for several weeks, but only in the three main cities of the country: the capital Antananarivo, Fianarantsoa in the south center, and Tamatave in the east. It’s partial containment. We can move around in the morning, until 1 p.m., so we can go out and shop. It is a containment adapted to local realities. Journalists have passes and can go out without problems. So I still have the freedom to work, and that’s important.

TV5MONDE: According to official figures, there have been few cases (158) and no deaths. What were the other measures taken in Madagascar?

Gaëlle Borgia: There was a border closure quite quickly. Before the announcement of the lockdown, all airports on the island were closed.

TV5MONDE: How is Madagascar experiencing this health crisis?

Gaëlle Borgia: I was pleasantly surprised by President Andry Rajoelina’s measures, which he took quite early on. Compared to other African countries, it decided to close airports early. Containment was also decided quickly, when we only had three cases in the country. These measures were well anticipated.

It is a very complicated situation to manage with a very specific context in Madagascar, with a large majority of the population who live from day to day, who have to go to their market, who have to work in order to be able to eat at night. We are really in an informal economy, a subsistence economy. There were food distributions for the poorest populations, to allow them to respect the confinement. There was also financial aid for these populations, for taxi drivers, bus drivers, in particular. All the same, there have been quite a few things that have been done for the poorest, who represent the majority.

(Re) see: Coronavirus in Madagascar: the urban exodus for the poorest

And then Madagascar is also fortunate to have very few cases, so there has been no rush to hospitals. Most of the sick are already healed. There were no serious cases, so no shortages of respirators. And then, they quickly adopted the hydroxychloroquine treatment protocol. Doctors at Covid-19 referral hospitals told us it was working well. Obviously, there are also controversies.

The president is also criticized for many decisions, including the implementation of an improved traditional remedy (based on artemisia), which does not convince everyone. He is convinced that this can prevent Covid-19, and especially cure the virus. The Madagascan Academy of Medicine had expressed reservations, in a press release. The World Health Organization has been slow to speak on the subject. There are still controversies over this management of the pandemic, here, but like everywhere in the end.

(Re) see Coronavirus in Madagascar: Covid-Organics, an effective “remedy” for artemisia? [à vrai dire]

We would like to thank the writer of this article for this remarkable material

Russian interference in Madagascar: Gaëlle Borgia’s investigation wins the Pulitzer Prize

Hank Gilbert