Russian interference in Madagascar: the Pulitzer for Gaëlle Borgia, correspondent for France 24

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France 24 correspondent in Madagascar, Gaëlle Borgia, received the Pulitzer Prize on Monday for her work published in the New York Times on Russian interference during the Malagasy presidential election in 2018.

“Taking part in an investigation of this level for the New York Times was already a consecration for me, so the Pulitzer Prize… It seemed so unattainable to me that it had never been on my radar.” Gaëlle Borgia still can’t believe it. This Franco-Malagasy journalist living in Madagascar since 2011, where she is notably the correspondent of France 24, is part of the New York Times team that received, Monday, May 4, the Pulitzer Prize for her investigations into certain external operations of the Russia of Vladimir Putin.

The American daily published in 2019 a series of six articles on Russia’s covert operations abroad, including a survey co-authored by Michael Schwirtz and Gaëlle Borgia on Russian interference in the Malagasy presidential election in 2018.

First contacted to help Michael Schwitz in his investigations, the work of Gaëlle Borgia proved decisive in obtaining key testimonies, including that of former president Hery Rajaonarimampianina, then candidate for his re-election, only a few weeks before the ballot . A contribution deemed “extraordinary” by the head of the international service of the New York Times, Michael Slackman, Monday evening, during the award ceremony, and which earned Gaëlle Borgia to see her name added next to the signature of Michael Schwirtz on the publication, on November 11, 2019, of the article entitled “How Russia Meddles Abroad for Profit: Cash, Trolls and Cult Leader” (“Cash, Trolls and Pastor: How Russia Interferes Abroad”)

France 24: What was your reaction when you heard that you had won the Pulitzer Prize?

Gaëlle Borgia: First of all astonishment because the Pulitzer Prize is so prestigious, it is a bit the equivalent of the Nobel Prize for journalists. Then I am very proud of the work I did in this survey, which lasted several months. But what makes me particularly happy is that the prize rewards teamwork. It is the “staff of the New York Times” who is rewarded, without any individuality being put forward. It makes you humble. Investigation is a work that is done by several people.

You show in your survey how the Russians actively participated in the Madagascan presidential election of 2018 without really hiding …

Yes, it was really fieldwork for them and not just meddling on social media. A whole team came to live in Madagascar for several months to approach presidential candidates, including Hery Rajaonarimampianina, and offer them assistance. It was enough to go to a campaign rally to see them. Over time, they quickly rose to prominence as the ones giving orders to campaign teams. Madagascar is one of the few countries where we have been able to see concretely how the Russians operate with bags full of cash, the publication of newspapers, the manufacture of derivative products, the organization of false demonstrations. Their interference had always been a bit abstract before that, but in Madagascar it was more concrete and very visible.

However, the Russians decide to change candidates when they realize that the outgoing president will not win. Does this mean that their influence remains limited despite their interference?

It is true that they broke their teeth a bit on this presidential election. They arrived with great certainty without knowing the country well and without realizing the forces involved. They were also very quickly denounced by the other candidates and very quickly lost their credibility. Their goal was to get their hands on a chrome mine. It went badly since they have now left Madagascar. So we can say that they generally failed in their project.

What difficulties did you encounter in carrying out your investigation?

The most difficult thing was to walk at an ant’s pace. We get closer to a source until she agrees to talk to us. Then when she finally accepts, she doesn’t say everything right away. It is a constant search, which progresses from meeting to meeting. While digging, I ended up having some small elements and to have a convincing element, you have to make your sources speak for several weeks, to put them in confidence until the tongues are loosened.

Especially since most of the witnesses who had worked with the Russians were afraid to speak to me. I had a hard time getting in touch with people who agreed to reveal their names. They begged me not to quote them and asked me regularly if I was sure nothing would happen to them.

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Russian interference in Madagascar: the Pulitzer for Gaëlle Borgia, correspondent for France 24